The Establishment of Pan-Africa's First Biobank

Collecting data for better representation of genetic variability

A World Report published in The Lancet on 13 July 2019 features 54gene, an Africa-focused genomics start-up that began in Nigeria, the first and largest pan-African biobank. It has secured 4.5 million USD seed funding from international investors to bring the initiative to fruition.

Biobanks have become an increasingly important resource in medicine that support the studies in genomics and precision medicine. Biobanks have rapidly developed around the world, but not in Africa. Currently, Africa only contributes 2% of the data used in genome-wide association studies.

Abasi Ene-Obong is the founder and chief executive officer of 54gene. Although the start-up launched in early 2019, 54gene is already on track to have 40,000 samples in its Nigerian biobank before the end of 2019. It is aiming to achieve this by working with specialists in ten tertiary hospitals across the country's six geopolitical zones to promote and ensure inclusion.

The company is also in talks with stakeholders in six other African countries where it is planning to set-up biobanks. With the seed funding, the start-up is aiming to build a global team in the USA and in Africa, to acquire samples, and to expand to other parts of Africa.

Abasi Ene-Obong noted in his interview in The Lancet that the start-up's initiative could solve global problems affecting people regardless of race. Seth Bannon, a founding partner at a San Francisco-based early-stage venture fund and 54gene investor, said in the report that the biobank repositories need greater inclusivity as “… the world's genomic datasets are overwhelmingly Caucasian”.

54gene has admitted some obstacles, e.g. the cost of running a biobank is particularly expensive in African countries, where electricity is not constantly available. They are currently looking at how they can install electronic data capture. Furthermore, the company is sending DNA samples abroad for sequencing because of high local costs and the absence of support for sequencing and other complex analyses in Africa.

Rotimi Fasimoye, a Nigeria-born doctoral candidate at the Institute of Medical Sciences at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland cautioned that the project will only survive if its contributions are justifying the investments made.

However, 54gene's chief executive officer is optimistic about the prospects in Africa and that the business angle will emerge in long-term. At the moment, they are more focused on being able to gather as much information and asking the right questions to the datasets they are gathering.

Reference

Adepoju P. Africa's first biobank start-up receives seed funding. The Lancet 2019; 394(10193):p108. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(19)31614-9.