South African geneticist Ambroise Wonkam, M.D., Ph.D., D.Med.Sc., has been selected as Johns Hopkins Medicine’s director of the Department of Genetic Medicine and the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine. An advocate of diversifying the pool of genetic reference data that scientists often use to make genetic discoveries, Wonkam has made pivotal contributions to research on sickle cell disease, hearing loss, medical research ethics and genetics education.
He is set to lead the department starting Jan. 1, succeeding David Valle, M.D., who will remain on the Johns Hopkins faculty and continue research and clinical duties.
Growing up in Cameroon, Wonkam watched his friends and classmates endure the toll of sickle cell disease, a heritable condition of sickle shape red blood cells that is marked by intense pain, disability and shortened lifespan. The experience spurred Wonkam’s interest in genetic medicine.
“To make genetic medicine a global good for understanding the variability among us, we need to understand our genome to its fullest,” says Wonkam. “We have a duty to carry forward this work and make genetic medicine innovations sustainable and equitable for all populations.”
Wonkam received his medical degree from the University of Yaounde in Cameroon, a doctorate as well as specialist training in medical genetics from the University of Geneva in Switzerland, and a doctorate in human genetics from the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
He remained at the University of Cape Town and soon became a professor of medical genetics, then deputy dean of research and director of GeneMAP (Genetic Medicine of African Populations), an effort to increase representation of the genetic diversity of Africa’s populations in genetic reference genomes.
“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Wonkam among the leaders of our medical school’s departments,” says Paul B. Rothman, M.D., dean of the medical faculty and CEO, Johns Hopkins Medicine. “He brings to Hopkins a diverse and expansive set of research and clinical experiences that will be a foundation for continuing our institution’s leadership and innovation in the field of genetic medicine.”
Wonkam has authored more than 180 peer-reviewed research publications and leads numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health. His research has included a focus on the psychosocial aspects of sickle cell disease and genetic links to the condition’s symptoms.
Recently, Wonkam established the Sickle Africa Data Coordinating Centre to study how epidemiological, clinical and genetic information from African populations with sickle cell disease may correlate with treatment outcomes.