• A genomics company called 54gene wants to improve healthcare across the continent by building the world's first and largest pan-African biobank.
  • In this interview, Dr Abasi Ene-Obong, the founder and CEO of 54gene tells us all the important reasons for creating Africa's largest biobank.
  • He also lets us know how his company intends to use the African DNA to create more effective drugs, fight Sickle Cell disease, diabetes and other illnesses that affect the African community.

Did you know that nearly 90% of genetic material used in pharmaceutical research is caucasian? It has also been reported that only 2% of the data used in Genome-wide Association Studies [GWAS] come from Africans. This is as recent as last year.

This is where Dr Abasi Ene-Obong and his genomics company come in. Recognising the lack of diversity in the global pharmaceutical industry, he created 54gene, the genomics company building the world's first pan-African biobank.

In this interview with Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa, Ene-Obong tells us how he intends to use this biobank to improve healthcare across the continent.

54gene Nigerian team
54gene Nigerian team

Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa (BI SSA): What does a DNA biobank mean exactly and why is it absolutely necessary?

Abasi Ene-Obong (AEO): A biobank is a repository where DNA samples are kept for research purposes, and no such thing exists for Africa at present, so a biobank is necessary for our continent. Africans and people of African ancestry are more genetically diverse than all other world populations combined. We have the technology to record this rich data set and to use it as the foundation for medical discoveries. Africans and people of African origin are lacking access to cutting edge treatment because we do not have a central point of reference for medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies to develop the next generation of drugs that cater specifically to our genetic makeup. Currently, it takes 10–15 years for an innovative drug launched in the US/Europe to get to Africa. Most drugs aren't developed with African patients in mind. Our biobank is being built to change this.

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(BI SSA): 54gene started about 6 months ago, tell us what made you want to establish Africa's first biobank?

(AEO): When I realised that African genetic data makes up only 2% of the global genetic database, I found that to be curious, because Africans have so much genetic diversity, and I knew that from a research perspective, being able to study African genetic data would have an enormous impact. This is why I started 54gene at the beginning of 2019.

In an age where the development of drugs is becoming more personalised, I asked myself how could researchers even begin to introduce effective drugs into the market if there are no African DNA data sets to work with. They can't, which means that a whole continent, and its Diaspora, is going to miss out on health and drug innovation; that's more than a billion people. 54gene was launched to address this issue, head-on. 

Dr Abasi Ene-Obong, CEO of 54gene
Dr Abasi Ene-Obong, CEO of 54gene

(BI SSA): How would unlocking the African genome help identify diagnostic and therapeutic targets that can benefit people?

(AEO): We plan to co-develop products using this newly acquired data, as well as do our own research outside of other pharma companies. Over the next couple of years, we will be investing heavily in building data science capabilities to both partner with pharmaceutical companies and find our own targets. Whilst, of course, it's fascinating to record and analyse Africa's rich and diverse DNA data set, we also want need to apply it for good - improving healthcare for an entire continent.

Abasi and team (54gene)
Abasi and team (54gene)

(BI SSA): Can the genetic material from your biobank be used to reduce the high rate of paternity fraud in Nigeria?

(AEO): This isn't an area we are focussing on at present - we are looking more at areas such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease - as well as Sickle Cell Disease and Diabetes - two illnesses that present strongly within the African community. It is areas like this which are our immediate focus.

(BI SSA): What other solutions can the biobank offer? How can it impact healthcare, Africa and the rest of the world?

(AEO): We want to work with the world's leading medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies, to develop drugs and treatments that target specific cancers, or can unravel the mutations that might increase the risk of Alzheimer's, for example. We want to unlock the data so we can understand the diseases that are plaguing us.

(BI SSA): According to 54gene's Chief Commercial Officer Jessica Rich, you plan to get samples from 40,000 participants before the end of 2019 and to expand to gather approximately 200,000 samples by the end of 2020. How do you intend to get the genetic material required to build this biobank?

(AEO): We are partnering with healthcare professionals, to ensure we can source robust data sets. In Nigeria, we're in 10 of the top hospitals in the country and we have 50 doctors who are recruiting participants with cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurology disease. We get the necessary ethical approvals/data security, and we're able to access the patients and get access to their data, treating it, of course, with the utmost security.

Our goal is to co-develop products alongside pharmaceutical companies, using the data we secure over the coming months. We also want to make some of the data available to other players, so that we can work with them. We believe the more people have access to this data the more value. This is an international, cross-generational project - collaboration is essential.

(BI SSA): Any other thing you would like people to know about this biobank and how it can benefit the continent?

(AEO): We are looking to collaborate with medical institutions across the continent, to ensure our work is collaborative and thorough. This is an ambitious task and cannot be done by one company alone. Medicine and medical research can only work through co-ordinated, meticulous planning and the sharing of knowledge and data.

*The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.*