Genomics centre in Cape Town to decode genes

The African Genomics Centre – a first for the African continent – is already under construction at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) head office in Cape Town.

This week, the SAMRC cemented its collaboration with the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) through the signing of a formal agreement that guarantees an exciting future for this state-of-the-art research facility.

BGI is at the forefront of the global scientific progress on genetic science and DNA sequencing, while South Africa has identified an opportunity, through this partnership, to build the country’s capacity for whole human genome sequencing.

“The development propels South Africa into a new era of medical research and means that we join a small, but growing, group of countries that are pioneering this type of innovation,” said Professor Glenda Gray, President of the SAMRC. The signing ceremony takes place on top of Table Mountain in Cape Town on Friday (16 February).

Operations to begin mid-2018 – boosting research to enable precision medicine for South Afric.

“This novel field of research harnesses the science of genomics for personalised medicine,” said Prof Gray. “Knowledge of the DNA sequence has become an important part of understanding disease. By establishing the sequence of an individual’s genetic material, it is possible to identify mutations which are specific to that person. These genetic tools will help us understand South Africa’s diverse gene pool and convey insights on treatments for common diseases like diabetes.”

The centre will be a vital national asset, able to contribute to the better understanding of factors that impact on the health of South Africans and inform strategies to improve their response to diseases.  This means that conditions that contribute to our heavy burden of disease in the country – such as hypertension, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cancer – can be diagnosed faster and more accurately, and treatments delivered in a more targeted, effective and cost-efficient way.

Dr Li Ning, Chief Development Officer, BGI, said that the collaboration is positive for science and it will strengthen bilateral relations between China and South Africa, as both countries have contributed to the establishment of the facility through research capacity, funding, equipment and other infrastructure needed to operate the centre.

“BGI congratulates the SAMRC on its commitment to scientific advancement and for having in place the building blocks that this type of initiative requires. We have already learned much from each other and from what we respectively bring to the collaboration as partners. We are truly enthusiastic about the scientific breakthroughs we can look forward to as well as the many benefits they will afford to South Africa and Africa,” said Dr Li.

About the African Genomics Centre

The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) are partners in the establishment of the African Genomics Centre, located at the SAMRC head office in Cape Town.

The dedicated African Genomics Centre builds on South Africa’s previous participation in the Human Heredity and Health in Africa initiative (H3Africa).

When it opens its doors in mid-2018, the centre will become an invaluable national asset and the first facility on the African continent capable of conducting large-scale studies on whole genome sequencing. Equipped with the latest technology and know-how and backed by a strong training component, the centre will realise the potential for localised cutting-edge genomic research and generation of new knowledge on the African population genome.

As a developing nation, South Africa seeks to build a more sustainable, locally powered healthcare environment and utilise available financial and human resources more effectively to reduce the burden of disease and improve the nation’s health.

Genomics paves the way for personalised treatment.

Knowledge of the DNA sequence has become a crucial part of understanding and responding to the disease. By establishing the sequence of an individual’s genetic material, it is possible to identify mutations which are specific to each person. Having sight of these sequences helps in recognising the cause or stage of a disease, or the risk of future disease. It also helps to predict the likely benefits or side-effects of a particular medication.

This is relevant because many medicines were developed outside Africa, having been researched on study populations with a different gene pool. Yet, the African population – with South Africans in particular – shows a large amount of genetic diversity. Hence medicines may seem less effective, especially in case of lifestyle diseases such as cardiovascular conditions, diabetes and cancer.

Genomics paves the way for personalised treatment – medicines and other treatments can be prescribed not just for their general effect on a disease, but for the way they interact with a patient’s genetic makeup. It is therefore imperative to create a knowledge base of the African population genomics.

The centre will also enable South African scientists to overcome limitations in local bioinformatics capacity. This is a big data initiative that requires robust ability to work with huge sets of data to create and sustain bioinformatics pipelines and local databases on population genetics.