Unlocking the African Genome and the Future of Personalized Medicine

Faridah Giwa
Faridah Giwa
July 2, 2019, 3 mins read
Unlocking the African Genome and the Future of Personalized Medicine

To date, Africa has been left out of global genomics research and innovation. Even though the African populace harbors the most varied genetic profile on earth, its potential has been greatly overlooked. We have not even breached the surface of what knowledge lies in wait, because only 2% of genetic research focuses on African subjects. 

Recently, researchers discovered that nearly 300 million letters of DNA, observed in a cohort of 910 Africans, were missing from the world’s most reputable genomic databases. By underestimating human genetic diversity, we have been hampering scientific progress and limiting medical breakthroughs. Why, you may ask? Here’s a crash course:    

Why is the African continent so genetically diverse?

Africa is made up of 54 countries (hence the “54” in 54gene) and more than 2,000 linguistic groups, which account for about 1/3 of the world’s languages. In many cases, each language correlates to a tribe of people who typically lived and married among themselves for nearly 200,000 years. As many in Africa know, many tribes still marry each other today – and although this is changing rapidly in my generation, it nonetheless has occurred for hundreds of thousands of years. As a result, many genetic variations have been conserved within sub-populations in Africa.

Why is this important, you say?

In the age of personalized medicine, genetic variation is what researchers look for when identifying targets for drug discovery. Since African genomes have not been well represented in studies, there’s a chance that many of the new personalized medicines or diagnostics will not work well when administered to people of African origin. In addition, studying the African genome has the potential to uncover variations that will lead to new drug discoveries and benefit to people of all races. (And there is precedent for this!) 

So what are we doing about  it?

At 54gene, we have set out to unlock the African genome by building the world’s first and largest pan-African biobank. Our mission is twofold: To improve personalized medicine for Africans and people of African origin, and furthermore, to advance the quality of healthcare worldwide. We aim to do this by improving our understanding of the human genome and partnering with pharmaceutical companies to fuel research and development. In the process, we are committed to building genomics capability on the African continent and ensuring that its citizens are better informed and treated. (It is important to point out that all participants in our biobank contribute their genetic material voluntarily, and that we follow all internationally recognized standards to ensure data privacy and security.) 

Today, we are thrilled to welcome the new investors and partners who are joining us in pursuit of this big vision: Y Combinator, Fifty Years, Better Ventures, KdT Ventures, Hack VC, and Techammer, among others, will be joining the 54gene family. The $4.5M seed round, announced this afternoon by TechCrunch, will enable us to continue building our pan-African biobank as we expand across the continent and partner with research and development organizations around the world.

We believe that the future of global genomics will be built in Africa, and we’re grateful to have found partners who are committed to making our shared dream a reality.

Are you passionate about building Africa’s fastest growing genomics company? We’re hiring.

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