Recent studies show that only 2% of global genetic data used in pharmaceutical research today comes from black Africans or those of African descent. This means that new drugs are based overwhelmingly on white European genomes. To fix this imbalance and diversify healthcare solutions worldwide, genomics startup 54gene (named after the 54 recognised states that make up Africa) is on a mission to build the ‘world’s first and largest pan-African biobank’.
The firm works with 17 hospitals across Nigeria, collecting samples of blood, tumour, tissue and saliva from consenting patients with non-communicable diseases. These include cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic conditions, neurodegenerative disorders, and sickle cell disease – a major public health concern in sub-Saharan Africa. While all data is anonymised and encrypted in line with international data privacy laws, the firm will share ‘big picture data’ with governments to help them allocate health-related resources better.
54gene has enjoyed significant growth since its launch in January. In July, it secured a record US$4.5 million in seed funding from investors such as Y Combinator, Fifty Years, Better Ventures and KdT Ventures. The firm are currently on track to obtaining 40,000 samples by the end of 2019, with plans to internationalise and reach 200,000 samples next year.
Africa is the longest inhabited, and most genetically diverse continent on earth. In Nigeria alone, there are over 500 unique ethnic groups whose genetics have been conserved over millennia. This makes African DNA a critical asset for pinpointing the variants that drive diseases across global populations, particularly in light of advances in personalised medicine. Research on a woman of African descent with mutant copies of the PCK29 gene, for instance, led to the discovery of Praluent, the first FDA-approved cholesterol-lowering drug of the 21st century.
According to founder Dr. Ene-Obong, eurocentrism in genomic data is reinforced by the fact that new medicines take time to reach Africa, often 'between 15 and 20 years' when big pharmaceutical manufacturers lose their patents. The bias also betrays a legacy of biomedical colonialism in which foreign entities plundered the continent for its biological resources and engaged in shocking treatment campaigns.
To ignore African DNA in genetic research is to risk excluding millions from the next frontier of medicine. By building ethnically diverse datasets, therefore, 54gene would help to democratise the healthcare space for Africans with poorer safety profiles, whilst enabling better, more precise therapeutics for all.