Within the past three years, there has been increasing interest in understanding the wealth of human genetic diversity that exists across the planet. I spent much of my research career studying intra-African genetic variation, and since joining the Genome Medicine team in 2013 I have retained a key interest in this area of research.
The importance of including African populations within evolutionary and clinical research should not be underestimated; Africa is the most diverse continent on Earth, from a human genetics perspective, and with respect to its disease burden. A key aim of the genomics revolution is to translate biomedical research findings into clinical practice; personalised medicine, in particular, is a strategic goal of translational genomics research. However it is premature to talk about the universality of translational research when so many diverse populations are under-represented; to truly move towards personalised genomics, we must first understand the complexity of human genetic variation across geographic regions.
For many years, the majority of research conducted on Africans hasn’t actually been conducted by African research groups; traditionally Africans have been study populations for international researchers who collect data from across Africa and analyse them outside of the continent, effectively leaving African researchers out of the loop. This research paradigm has also contributed to the African brain drain, leading to Dr Lalla Ben Barka of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), to issue this warning:
“In 25 years, Africa will be empty of brains.”
There are some estimates that since 1990, ~20,000 highly educated professionals have left Africa each year. Scientists are no exception. In order for talented African scientists to establish and develop their careers, they often had to take posts overseas; some even ended up working on African-focused projects while based in US or European laboratories.
In 2010 a new consortium called the Human Health and Hereditary in Africa Consortium (H3 Africa) was established, which is backed by the Wellcome Trust and US National Institute of Health. H3Africa is committed to funding African researchers and institutions to undertake genomic and disease research. The significance of this Consortium should not be overlooked; the impact of brain drain on the economic performance of African nations is substantial, and H3Africa is likely to go some way towards reversing the tide by helping to create Centres of Excellence for scientific training on the African continent. Perhaps most significantly, H3Africa is providing Africans with a stake in understanding and researching their own diverse continent, and helping to present African institutions as serious collaborators in international research projects.
Three years after the creation of H3Africa the enthusiasm for improving the research capabilities of African Institutions remains high. Recently, the Consortium announced the second round of successful research awards, and the amount awarded to African researchers now totals $74 million over the past 3 years. As someone who once worked in this area of research I find that incredibly exciting, even more so when it is clear that the momentum for scientific development in Africa shows no signs of slowing down.