An African-led effort is underway to develop a new genetic chip that promises to bring the benefits of precision genetic medicine to Africans and those of African descent.

The developers of the chip say it will be ready to use in early 2017, and that the chip could lead to new insights into human health as well as new treatments that work more effectively on Africans.

A genetic chip, also known as a DNA microarray or Biochip, is a card containing numerous microscopic spots containing the entire human genome. Thousands of people’s genetic sequences are screened against a reference library of genetic markers, or specific variations in the genetic code, and this information is stored on these genetic chips manufactured.

The new chip, currently being developed by the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) initiative and funded by the UK and US, will eventually contain millions of genetic variations that are common in Africa.

The programme has already collected tens of thousands of samples from dozens of African population groups to study genetic links for diseases like diabetes, sleeping sickness, rheumatic heart disease and tuberculosis.

Precision medicine involves the scanning of patient genes in order to devise treatment programmes that are tailor made to suit their genetic profile. The technique is already routine in developed countries, with oncologists in the US and Europe these genetic tests are used to determine which treatments will work best for their patients’ cancers.

However, the genetic information used for these tests primarily relates to people of western decent, with 81% of the 35 million study participants being of European ancestry. Of those remaining, three-quarters were Asians, with just 3% being of African origin.

Bio-informatician from the University of Cape Town, Nicola Mulder, who led the work on the chip, said: “This will be the first chip that has been created to specifically target genetic variation in African populations and people of African descent.”

This current lack of diversity in collected genetic information is a significant problem, as Africans are the most genetically diverse people in the world. Furthermore, Africans have genetic variations that are not found at all in Caucasian populations. As a consequence, precision medical tools based on Causican genetic data are at risk of being less effective or even harmful for African populations.

Previously, African scientists had limited ability to carry out studies to pinpoint genetic causes for disease, as African countries lack the machinery to sequence entire human genomes quickly. This work has now been done at Baylor College of Medicine in the US, with 144 terabytes of resulting data being sent back to Africa for analysis and eventual addition to the new genetic chip.

The project has been an Africa-led effort from the start, Mulder said, but she believes that the benefits will be felt beyond the continent.

Nigerian geneticist Charles Rotimi of the US National Institutes of Health says that studying African genetics will help to chart the genetic history of all mankind.

“Understanding the genetics of African people is imperative. Without it you can’t tell the story of the rest of the world,” concluded Rotimi

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