Even though personal genomics has great prospects globally, including numerous possibilities for Africa, very few Africans are enthusiastic about it.
Digital health, just like the binary codes 0 and 1 which are its building blocks, is gradually getting popular to various degrees in different parts of Africa—but many aspects of genomics remain unpopular among the populace. Even though several genetic research initiatives are being carried out at facilities in different parts of the continent, not many Africans are aware of adenine, cytosine, guanine and tyrosine—but Africa needs personalized genomics more than anywhere else.
At Nigeria’s premier university, the University of Ibadan, a team of researchers is working with an international malaria research consortium to characterize some potential malaria vaccine targets. A few kilometers away from the university, another malaria genetics research group is looking at the genetics of human response to the disease that kills more African children than any war or terrorist group put together.
Similar research on malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases that are devastating Africans individually and on a community basis are being conducted. Some are already showing promising results, but still, bringing these findings to the level of understanding of the average African remains a challenge even though there are innumerable applications for Africa’s unique healthcare problems.
Personal genomics is the ultimate goal in genetic research—the ability to use an individual’s peculiar genetic composition to predict disease prognosis, achieve quick diagnosis and develop personalized treatment.
Advancement in medical research in Africa has revealed genetic involvement in major diseases—including malaria, where genetic polymorphism has been linked to disease susceptibility. Africa is also the worst hit by HIV/AIDS, according to Reuters and WHO, and according to research published in ScienceDaily, genetic variation increases HIV risk among Africans.
Similar facts have emerged concerning several other diseases, including tuberculosis and various cancers—not to mention the entirely genetic sickle cell disease and thalassemia. These diseases are major causes of mortality in various African age groups and prognosis is dependent on how early an individual knows about the presence or risk of developing the disease.
“Genetics could serve as our healthcare eavesdropper and soothsayer that tells us what is happening behind our back. When someone tells you what is being planned for you. Such information allows you to adequately prepare yourself for it, it can also help you to avert the aftermath,” Ms. Bidemi Oloko, a high school biology teacher told nuviun.
At the current phase in clinical science, what has been achieved so far in personal genomics is making it possible for genomes of individuals to be sequenced and analyzed. This is done using various Next Generation Sequencing techniques. When the sequencing has been done, the result is then compared with published ‘normal’ sequences to identify and interpret variations.
“It will tell you whether an individual has genetic variations that would put them at high risk of developing a health condition; it can also help in knowing an individual’s possible allergies and family traits. With this information, the process of making healthcare decisions is aided. But cost is a major drawback,” she said.
Globally, there is an initiative to lower the cost of full gene sequencing to $100. CNN dubbed it the race to a $100 genome and the initiative seeks to make low-cost genome sequencing widely available.
The current cost is from $1,000 to $4,000. Even though it is very expensive, it is a great improvement from what it used to cost before, considering the fact that it was as high as $1 million in 2007.
There is a soaring global interest—especially by startups seeking to make a profit from the genetic testing market, which is predicted to reach $25 billion by 2021. Achieving this would entail introduction of faster and cheaper methods, such as chip sequencing. Without expensive reagents, it could be much cheaper than the conventional optical sequencing.
“Even at $100, I don’t think personal genomics would fly in Africa because of ubiquitous poverty and cosmopolitan illiteracy,” said geneticist Lanre Akinbami.
He told nuviun: “Africa needs personal genomics more than any other place in the world, but the model that is being experimented with globally will not work here unless global health organizations step in to augment the cost and make it popular on the continent by partnering with relevant governments to make the diagnosis even free,” he said.
However, mobile tech expert Sanya Idris believes it is not an entirely gloomy outlook for Africa regarding personal genomics. He predicts researchers will find a way to make the test truly personal by leveraging the capabilities of smartphones.
“I know it is a disruption of the plans of the scientists, but I’m sure they are already thinking about it and we should see such emerging technologies in the nearest future,” he told nuviun.