Decoding the gifts of the ancestors

South Africa is carrying out an “impressive” amount of genetic research, concludes an analysis in Nature Reviews Genetics (NRG) this month, with overviews of the burgeoning sector in similar countries such as India, Mexico and Thailand.

South Africa, home to vast genetic diversity, is concentrating on profiling indigenous populations and applying genomics to benefit local health needs — HIV and tuberculosis for example — with research into genetic vulnerability to disease and genetic influences on how the body metabolises drugs.

Other African countries are also making advances in the field, with a national DNA bank in Gambia and human gene banking by drug discovery groups such as the African Institute of Biomedical Science and Technology (AIBMST) in Harare, Zimbabwe.

AIBMST director Collen Masimirembwa says African researchers overcame significant logistical hurdles to create the bank, with blood samples collected from about 100 adult volunteers from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

But much of the research into African human genetic variation is still done by international scientists, although in collaboration with African institutions, says Raj Ramesar from the University of Cape Town.

“We are developing an open-source inventory of exactly what is being done and by whom,” says Ramesar.

The authors of the NRG case study say additional government research funding is needed in South Africa to ensure that research does not have to rely on international collaborations. The divide between basic research and commercialisation also must be bridged.

Genetics offers cash-strapped public health programmes the opportunity for greater effectiveness such as identifying drugs for specific individuals, says Abdallah Daar, a principal investigator for the study and director of ethics and policy at the McLaughlin Centre for Molecular Medicine in Toronto, Canada.

Béatrice Séguin, NRG studies team leader, says that the results of the study are being distributed across Africa as researchers engage with policymakers.

“Expansion into biotechnology has multiple spin-offs. It would help prevent the brain drain, more physical infrastructure would be constructed and more innovative research would be done,” Séguin says. — www.SciDev.Net

Link to full South African paper is available via the SciDev.Net website’s Africa page

Munyaradzi Makoni was a finalist in the Western Cape Vodacom journalist awards, while Christina Scott is in the Vodacom journalism finals in the online category for a SciDev.Net investigation done with Durban reporter Sharon Davis on how South Africa’s ministry of health blocked desperately needed studies on how ARVs protect the children of HIV-positive mothers]

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Christina Scott
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