African Academy of Sciences awards Sh1.1billion in grants to research in human genes

The African Academy of Sciences is awarding Sh1.1billion ($11 million) to four leading African researchers for research to accelerate the use of genomics to understand how the environment and human genes influence the susceptibility of Africans to certain diseases and their response to treatment.

The grants are being awarded to researchers from Ethiopia, The Gambia, Uganda and South Africa to lead four-year programmes to promote south-south collaboration through the Human Hereditary and Health in Africa (H3Africa).

The awards represent the first H3Africa disbursement through the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), a collaboration of the African Academy of Sciences and the NEPAD Agency, since AESA assumed management of the Wellcome-funded component of the second phase of H3Africa. Phase 1 of H3Africa was implemented and managed by Wellcome and the US’ National Institutes of Health and AESA will continue the established partnership with the NIH and Wellcome to deliver Phase II.

The grants will support research to identify genes causing or associated with hearing impairment (University of Cape Town, South Africa.

They will also study how genetic differences in humans and malaria parasites affect the progress of the disease in individuals and communities in different environments (MRC, Gambia).

They will also understand how genetic diversity in both pathogens and human populations determines who gets tuberculosis with the aim of developing new treatments and vaccines (AHRI, Ethiopia.

Another area of support is to identify populations that are carriers of sleeping sickness and bilharzia — two neglected tropical diseases— for effective intervention through national control programmes (University of Makerere, Uganda).

Genomics is the scientific study of an individual’s genes including their interaction with each other and with the environment. Genomics has helped provide insight into the understanding of diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, which are influenced by genetic and environmental factors, thereby offering insights for developing new diagnostic methods, therapies, and treatments.

Genomic research also offers the potential to better understand diseases endemic to Africa that remain understudied because human genetics research has been concentrated on European populations, under-representing individuals of African ancestry.

“With genomics, we can learn more about ourselves—why some diseases are more pervasive and have a more devastating impact in Africa than elsewhere in the world and how African populations respond to treatment — so we can produce products that are relevant to us, including drugs. This will go a long way in aiding efforts to reduce the continent’s disease burden and building a foundation for advances in genomics medicine and precision medicine for public health in Africa,” said AESA Director Prof Tom Kariuki.

The H3Africa projects include a component to build infrastructure and train a critical mass of highly skilled genomics researchers in Africa.

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