A partnership between the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) will see the construction of the African Genomics Centre, located at the SAMRC head office in Cape Town.

When it opens its doors in mid-2018, the centre will become the first facility on the African continent capable of conducting large-scale studies on whole 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 President of the SAMRC, Professor Glenda Gray.

“This novel field of research harnesses the science of genomics for personalised medicine. 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,” continued Prof Gray.

The centre will 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 SA’s heavy burden of disease – 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.

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.

Chief Development Officer at BGI, Dr Li Ning, said that their collaboration with the SAMRC 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.

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.

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

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