People of African descent are poorly represented in genetic research. A new effort will change that

Scientists are preparing to collect genetic material from 500,000 people of African descent to create what they believe will be the world’s largest database of population genomic information.

The hope is to create a new reference genome—a template that will be compared to complete sets of individuals’ DNA—and to better understand the genetic variants that affect blacks. It could eventually translate into new drugs and diagnostic tests and help reduce health disparities.

The initiative was launched Wednesday by Meharry College of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, along with the Regeneron Genetics Center, AstraZeneca, Novo Nordisk and Roche. The pharmaceutical companies are providing the funding, while the data will be managed by a nonprofit Meharry founded called the Diaspora Human Genomics Institute.

Organizers said there was a clear need for the project, pointing to research showing that less than 2% of the genetic information studied today comes from people of African descent.

We’re going to bridge that gap, and this is just the beginning, said Anil Shanker, senior vice president of research and innovation at Meharry.

Scientists have long known that the link they compare to individual genomes has serious limits because it is based primarily on the genetic material of a single person and does not reflect the spectrum of human diversity.

Although the genomes of any two peoples, the set of instructions for building and maintaining a person, are more than 99% identical, scientists say they want to understand the differences.

The project is not related to relevant research already being carried out. In May, scientists published four studies on the construct diverse reference genome, which they call the pangenome. At that time, it included the genetic material of 24 people of African descent, 16 from the Americas and the Caribbean, six from Asia and one from Europe.

In the new project, Meharry, a historically black health sciences center, will recruit patients in the Nashville area to donate blood, then send it to the Regeneron Genetics Center, which will perform genetic sequencing for free.

Other historically black colleges and universities in the US and the University of Zambia in Africa will also recruit volunteers. Project organizers said they are also open to working with other universities in Africa, as well as medical centers and health departments there. Organizers expect registration to take about five years. All information will be kept anonymous.

After genetic sequencing, the data will enter the Diaspora Human Genomics Institute database, and the database will be made available exclusively to HBCUs and participating institutions in Africa. Outside researchers can access information through these institutions.

You can imagine if these schools had a resource like this, other academic institutions would want to partner with them, said Lyndon Mitnaul, executive director of research initiatives at the Regeneron Genetics Center.

Corporate partners will be able to use the data for research and to develop drugs and diagnostic tests.

The 10-year initiative also includes the creation of a grant program to support research and education in genomics and related fields at Meharry, as well as broader STEM programs for children in various community grades. Each of the pharmaceutical companies involved plans to invest $20 million in the genetics and education areas of the effort.


The Associated Press Department of Health and Science is supported by the Science and Education Media Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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