Currently, there is an ongoing global effort to apply genomic science and associated technologies to further the understanding of health and disease in different populations, and, in particular, to identify individuals and populations who are at risk, due to genetic and/or environmental factors, for developing a specific disease. Possible outcomes of such research include early and more accurate diagnosis, the development of new drugs and potentially, personalized medicine – the systematic use of information about each individual patient to select or optimize the patient’s preventative and therapeutic care.
However, most African countries are being left behind in this genomic revolution and if this is not urgently addressed, genomics will contribute to the widening of global and ethnic inequalities in health and economic well-being.
In response to this challenge, the African Society of Human Genetics, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Wellcome Trust (WT) convened a Frontiers Meeting in Yaoundé, Cameroon in March 2009 to discuss a research agenda to study genetic diversity in health and disease in African populations. The meeting brought together scientific experts from a number of different fields to identify the major scientific questions, as well as the ethical and practical issues of pursuing a large-scale genomics research program in Africa. The key aim of the meeting was to engage with African scientists and other stakeholders in order to outline research priorities and discuss the appropriate study design needed to inform and ultimately impact health in the African populations. Following this meeting the concept of H3Africa was developed and the initiative was announced in June 2010. H3Africa is supported by the NIH Director’s Common Fund as an initiative within its Global Health Program and by the Wellcome Trust as part of their continuing research portfolio in Africa.
The African Academy of Sciences (The AAS) joined the second phase of H3Africa to manage the Wellcome component of the programme and has invested $12 M to four African researchers to understand the genetic and environmental factors influencing diseases, such as sleeping sickness, bilharzia, hearing impairment, malaria and tuberculosis. At The AAS, H3Africa is implemented through the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), a funding and agenda setting platform which is a partnership between The AAS and the African Union Development Agency (formerly the NEPAD Agency).