Africa's role in the genetic revolution

It is not too late for the developing world to take part in the revolution that is genetic research, key speakers told a major international conference in Stellenbosch recently.

“Don’t be hypnotised by technology,” British scientist Gordon Dougan told delegates at the Human Genome in Africa conference.

Dougan was among more than 350 delegates from many different disciplines who took part in the conference.

Organised by the Africa Human Genome Initiative (AHGI), the conference was designed to ensure that Africa shares in the opportunities and enjoys the rewards of research into the genome.

Genetic research is expected to provide a better understanding of the evolution and migration patterns of humankind and more immediate benefits in understanding and treating disease, including vaccine development, more accurate testing for congenital problems and gene therapies.

Dougan, the director of the Centre of Molecular Microbiology and Infection at Imperial College, London, gave the keynote speech.

He said several developing countries, including Cuba, India and Vietnam, had benefited from the construction of vaccine-producing facilities.

“Vaccines can be produced with relatively simple technology within five years,” he said.

The technology was not particularly expensive. Aside from being able to produce vaccines relatively cheaply for a country’s own population, it had a range of spin-offs, including new research and business opportunities.

“There is a major revolution under way in vaccinology and in infectious-disease control,” said Dougan. He said industry was “all of a sudden” interested in vaccine production and he expected the global business in vaccines to double or triple within the next 10 to 15 years.

“Africa has to develop its own equivalent capacity based on simple generic vaccination technology,” Dougan said.

He warned that vaccine development had fallen behind in developing countries over the past 20 years and was concentrated in the hands of four multinational companies. Globalisation had led to these companies taking control of the production and distribution of vaccines.

To illustrate the spin-off potential of genetic research, Dougan said that genomic sequencing had meant the imminent development of an oral vaccine against typhoid.

Many speakers echoed the sentiment that the developing world should take part in genetic research. “Developing countries have a golden opportunity due to advances in software and technology, and because much genomic information is already available in the public domain,” said Tikki Pang, the World Health Organisation (WHO) director .

Pang said the imbalance between the developed and developing world could be illustrated by the fact that of the 1 393 drugs developed worldwide between 1975 and 1999, only 1,1% were aimed at the tropical diseases prevalent in poor countries.

Chee Heng-Leng, co-author of a WHO report on genomics and world health and an associate professor of philosophy and biomedical ethics at Putra University in Malaysia, told delegates that most health research and development was carried out in the private sector. This skewed research priorities in favour of commercial opportunities in the developed world.

“The fear is that advances in genomics will increase rather than decrease global disparities,” she said.

The report recommends that developing countries establish their own clinical genetic services based on easily transferable and well-tried clinical applications of DNA technology.

Wilmot James, an AHGI member who is also executive director of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), said exploratory discussions were under way to investigate the creation of a vaccine-producing facility in South Africa. The AHGI, made up of the HSRC, the Academy of Science of South Africa and the Sustainability Institute, plans to hold the conference yearly.

Adrian Hadland is a chief research specialist for the HSRC

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