By Adeline Lopez
Africa suffers a disproportionate burden of communicable diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, as well as an emerging prevalence of non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Despite these issues, the high genetic diversity of African populations offers researchers a unique opportunity to study and discover important interactions between genes and the environment (G x E) as they relate to varied locations, lifestyles, and exposures. By exploring G x E interactions in this context, scientists can better understand factors associated with many complex disease outcomes.
NIH is part of a global effort to apply genomic science and technologies to understand health and disease in populations, including people who are more at risk for developing specific diseases due to genetic and/or environmental factors. Originally supported by the NIH Common Fund and the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom, the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) program is a consortium designed to provide new opportunities for African scientists to lead research, and aims to understand how G x E interactions influence health and disease by using genomics and other innovative approaches.
NIEHS has taken a leadership role in the second phase of the H3Africa program, which will be critical to incorporating research on environmental health sciences (EHS) and providing EHS research opportunities for African scientists in the future. Projects in phase two will evaluate environmental exposures such as pesticides, air pollution, smoking, and diet.
Training and Capacity Building for Scientists in Africa
H3Africa projects provide students, postdoctoral researchers, and young scientists with a variety of career enhancing opportunities. These include trainings, attending seminars or scientific meetings, writing papers, giving oral presentations, networking for internship placements, and more.
H3Africa has a strong focus on building capacity for African scientists to perform sophisticated genomics and EHS research and to explore how G x E interactions influence disease susceptibility. It serves as a vehicle to improve the research and training capacity of African laboratories by providing research opportunities for early career scientists, and facilitating collaborations with other scientists regionally, nationally, and globally.
“All of the components of this program emphasize training and skills development for scientists as part of a sustainable research approach,” said Kim McAllister, Ph.D., a health scientist administrator in the NIEHS Genes, Environment, and Health Branch.
With co-funding from NIEHS a primary focus in phase two will be capacity building for measuring environmental exposures in existing cohorts, and integrating and analyzing environmental health data with complex genomic information.
H3Africa is giving genomics research momentum on the African continent both by implementing a sustainable research infrastructure through the use of biobanks, and by providing technological capabilities like genotyping and bioinformatics. Importantly, by expanding expertise and building capacity in genomics-based biomedical research and environmental epidemiology, H3Africa is providing the next generation of African scientists with opportunities to grow and become leaders in the field of EHS.
Building Networks for Strategic Training and Partnerships
Training and capacity development are especially evident in the efforts of the H3A Bioinformatics Network (H3ABioNet). H3ABionet uses a multifaceted approach, including graduate training, workshops, and internships, to develop a cadre of committed trainers to support H3Africa projects.
H3ABionet is a pan-African bioinformatics network that includes 32 bioinformatics research groups in 15 Africans countries and two U.S. partner institutions. H3ABionet is supporting H3Africa research projects by building capacity for bioinformatics in Africa through initiatives focused on training, developing research tools, creating a sustainable research infrastructure, and others.
H3ABioNet provides extensive training in bioinformatics and computational techniques, and supports research to develop innovative bioinformatics tools and best practices that address the specific needs of research in Africa. To date, 12 workshops and other H3ABioNet events have been hosted in over seven African countries, with training for more than 200 individuals across the continent. Participants from “Train-the-Trainer” workshops are now equipped with the knowledge and resources to deliver training at their home institutions. Internships have been provided for H3ABioNet students in host laboratories, and educational curricula are now being developed for several bioinformatics degree programs due to these efforts.
Another prime example of H3Africa’s commitment to training and capacity building is a large collaborative program led by Michele Ramsay, Ph.D., at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Wits) in South Africa, who is building capacity for genomics research for six sites in Africa. Ramsay and her team have developed a strategic partnership with the International Network for the Demographic Evaluation of Populations and Their Health (INDEPTH) to form the Africa Wits-INDEPTH partnership for genomic studies on cardiometabolic diseases (AWI-Gen).
As an H3Africa Collaborative Center, AWI-Gen serves as a research resource. Now in the second phase of their project, their aim is to understand genetic and environmental risk factors for cardiometabolic disease in African populations that can inform prevention, treatment, and intervention strategies. They will explore how diet, physical activity, exposure to pesticides, the microbiome, and other complex environmental factors interact with genetic factors to increase risk for disease in some people.
This collaborative research program, co-funded by NIEHS, emphasizes training and skills development, including training field workers to collect data, and engaging with communities.