The NHLS featured prominently as a dominant force on the African continent when two of its researchers, their research teams and collaborators were awarded inaugural grants from prestigious international health research funding organisations to conduct cutting edge science on diseases affecting Africans.
The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Wellcome Trust, a global charity based in London, UK, fund the Human Hereditary and Health in Africa Consortium (H3Africa) grants. Of the nine research projects selected for the inaugural grants, the two driven by NHLS researchers are:
• Professor Akin Abayomi, head of the Division of Haematological Pathology, NHLS/University of Stellenbosch, who is the principal investigator of the project to develop Africa H3 biorepositories to facilitate studies on biodiversity, disease and pharmacogenomics of African populations; and
• Professor Michele Ramsay, of the Division of Human Genetics, NHLS/University of the Witwatersrand, who is the principal investigator of the study on genomic and environmental risk factors for cardiometabolic disease in Africans.
The H3Africa grants will enable African scientists to conduct genomic research into diseases particularly affecting Africans, such as kidney disease, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, tuberculosis and African sleeping sickness, and to develop an African bioinformatics network and two pilot biorepositories, of which one will be set up by the NHLS.
The NHLS biorepository, which will collect and maintain biospecimens for future scientific investigation, will be a partnership between the NHLS’ scientists based in Stellenbosch, and those at the NHLS’ facility in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
Professor Abayomi comments that “through these grants the NHLS’ research is recognised as a driver of much of the technological adaptation that is required to take place for us to enter the rapidly advancing global genomic age”.
“South African scientists have many collaborators in Europe and the USA, but seldom seek out partners on the continent. H3Africa is providing us with a great opportunity to do so,” adds Professor Ramsay.
The NIH has committed $25 million of grant support over five years, contingent on the availability of funds, and Wellcome Trust has committed almost $13 million over five years to the H3Africa project.
“H3Africa aims to transform the way science is conducted in Africa, by creating a sustainable research infrastructure and catalysing the use of advanced genomic technologies to improve our understanding of a variety of diseases,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “This is particularly relevant because Africa is the original cradle of all humanity, and in this era of expanded global travel and communication, it is becoming increasingly clear that we must think beyond our borders when it comes to understanding human biology and improving health.”
Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, said, "If we are to help tackle the growing burden of disease in Africa, it is important that we build capacity within the continent for African researchers and their institutions in order to understand the genetic and environmental causes of illness. The geographical breadth of participating institutions shows that H3Africa is about doing just this, enabling the scientists themselves to drive forward the African research agenda."