What 54gene actually does

What 54gene actually does and why you should care

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54gene is one of the most exciting and innovative startups to come out of Nigeria and Africa in recent times.

Since launching last year, the startup’s premise to address the significant gap in the global genomics market quickly caught the attention of local and international media.

Here’s why. Almost 90% of genetic material used in pharmaceutical research is Caucasian, and less than 3% is African. This is despite research saying that Africans and people of African ancestry are more genetically diverse than all other world populations combined.

Founded by Dr Abasi Ene-Obong, 54gene seeks to solve this problem by including underrepresented Africans in global genomics research. 

However, whether in explaining the problems 54gene is trying to solve or how the $19.7m VC-backed startup is solving them, there seems to be some medical jargon that makes it difficult to understand.

As Chief Operating Officer of 54gene, Delali Attipoe oversees the startup’s business operations in Nigeria, Africa, and the US.

In this interview with her, we try to break down and explain what 54gene is all about. From the challenges of equalising healthcare for Africans to the launch of its new genome sequence lab, Attipoe does a great job of telling us why we should care about the startup.  

Research says Africans have the most genetically diverse DNA in the world but make up only 2-3% of the world’s genetic database. Also, less than 1% of global drug discovery happens on the continent. What do you think are the reasons behind these findings?

When you think about the concept of “charity begins at home,” most of these Western researchers were researching their locale. So historically, Africans were not the ones driving a lot of the drug discovery research discoveries that we would want to see benefit our African populations or even broadly, beyond that. 

Why should Africans in the diaspora care about this oversight?

It is important to know that human genetics migrated to various parts of the world, deliberately or not, from Africa. So the average African in the diaspora, whether they call themselves African or not, should care because modifications over time can be traced back to genetic makeups of ancestors coming from Africa. 

Targeted treatments that are developed down the road as a result of changes in our genetics or mutation over time affect Africans in the diaspora.

Though I have Ghanaian parents, I was born in the US so I generally seek out treatments in Western medical systems, clearly because of where I live. However, those treatments are still based upon research from populations that don’t necessarily look like me.

Can you explain what exactly 54gene does so even a non-specialist can understand? 

I know some of this terminology was out there earlier, but 54gene is more than just a biobank. We see ourselves as a health technology company deriving insights from the world’s most diverse populations to solve some of healthcare’s biggest challenges. 

This involves generating data that can inform treatment and translate research into potential drugs or molecular diagnostics down the road. We also run clinical programmes that help to test drugs and treatments that ensure that we have optimal medicines for our population. 

Also, with many African researchers going to work at the world’s top universities and institutions outside the continent, there’s a massive brain drain occurring. We want these scientific minds to stay and bolster our research at home. So, in essence, 54gene is looking for ways to drive a lot more research on the ground. And we do that by undertaking drug-related R&D. 

From what I understand this is precision medicine, right? How does it allow for a more targeted approach to healthcare?

Okay, let’s talk about the concept of precision medicine and what that even means. Fundamentally, precision medicine is “do I have the right treatment for the right patient delivered at the right time?” It means leveraging one’s genes and DNA to provide correct targeted therapy. 

So imagine, for instance, that there’s a gene called TCC-G — now, there are mutations to genes, and for TCC-G, one of the mutations is TCC-A — and I have it. Also, one of the genetic traits associated with the gene is having dimples. Let’s also say having dimples causes a lot of problems for me and many around the world. 

This brings me to the non-communicable and infectious disease categories 54gene says are its primary focus. Sickle cell, for instance, falls under the former and it’s understandable why 54gene is needed. But it’s not clear what the company can do with the latter.

African governments prioritise diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV; these are the top three when you talk about infectious disease. Now, anyone can get a disease, but ultimately, it’s not about getting the disease. It’s about how that disease behaves within Tage or Delali or my distant cousin who might be 95% Chinese or Italian brother who’s 50% African. 

One of the things that we’ve seen during this pandemic is that infection rates look very different across various populations. Why’s that? First of all, there’s a lot that comes into play when you think about ancestry or what sort of genes get passed through generations. 

Also, there are different environmental factors when we compare the modern African man or woman in Senegal today versus somebody who’s five or six generation African American versus the Italian or Chinese in their respective countries. These factors influence the severity of diseases, even infectious ones, and how they operate in one’s body.

And that’s where studying genetics and how specific treatments are developed, based on what they target, will help inform the sort of response it’ll have within a patient. That’s why it’s still important to study infectious diseases. 

Read full article from: techpoint.africa


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