Africans are more genetically diverse than all other populations combined, however, African DNA makes up less than 2% of genetic research material.
54gene, a Nigerian-led startup which wants to reverse this, has raised $4.5 million in seed funding from large investment groups, including Y Combinator. As part of measures to boost access to African DNA for research purposes, the startup has already started building the world’s first and largest pan-African biobank.
“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,” the founder of the company, Dr Abasi Ene-Obong told Business Insider.
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At the moment, nearly 90% of genetic material used in pharmaceutical research is Caucasian. Africa has, till date, been left out of global genomics research and innovation.
Although the African populace harbours the most varied genetic profile on earth, its potential has been greatly overlooked, the company, which was set up this year, with bases in Nigeria and the U.S., said.
“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,” Ene-Obong said.
His company currently intends to use the African DNA to create more effective drugs, fight diabetes, sickle cell, and other diseases that affect most Africans.
The company is also hoping to add 40,000 DNA samples this year as it builds the world’s first African DNA biobank. It is working closely with research institutions on the continent, pharmaceutical companies, technology partners and healthcare regulators, to achieve this.
“We are committed to curating one of the most interesting genomic and phenotypic datasets in the world that will power the development of new drugs that benefit people of all races,” Ene-Obong said.
The global pharmaceutical industry is expected to reach $1.34 trillion by 2020. 54gene will focus on Africa and the African Diaspora, charting new territory for the global pharma industry, the company said.