Biotechnology: Africa cannot become an observer

24 March 2003
Genomic revolution: Prof Wieland Gevers, Interim Director of the Institute for Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, was the co-convenor of the Pathogen Genomics and Infectious Diseases workshops at The Human Genome and Africa initiative, held at Spier over the weekend.

AFRICA runs the risk of being marginalized following an explosion of innovative scientific endeavour around the new field of genomics, says Professor Wieland Gevers, Interim Director of UCT's Institute for Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IIDMM).

He was speaking on the eve of an international conference organised by the Africa Human Genome Initiative, held at the Spier Estate near Stellenbosch over the weekend.

The conference presented the historical, ethical and legal, educational, bio-medical and bio-technological implications of the Human Genome Project (HGP) for research and development in Africa.

The HGP is an international research programme designed to construct detailed genetic and physical maps of the estimated 30 000 genes within the human genome. Considered one of the greatest scientific developments of our time, the work has opened massive new areas for scientific investigation, Gevers noted, yielding results that will influence the understanding (and exploitation ) of biology in the 21st century.

“It's very clear that biological science will be the dominant science in the 21st century, the way that physics was in the 20th century. We can already see this (on the dark side) with biological weapons having become prominent next to nuclear weapons in warfare.

As African citizens we need to be in a position to benefit from and contribute to breathtaking new knowledge about ourselves and organisms of importance to us. But there is a real risk of Africa becoming completely marginalised, a non-player in this burgeoning new field,” he observed.

Bio-scientific research among the world's big players, such as Cambridge University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to name just two, was moving at a particularly fast pace. “But there are significant contributions smaller players in Africa can make, provided they hook timeously and appropriately into these major developments,” he cautioned.

The digital divide between Africa and the world has been well documented already. The thrust of the conference was an attempt to prevent a second divide arising. However, Africa did have some have some advantages, Gevers noted.

“The story of humans is an African story. For genomic studies, Africa represents a particularly interesting field in the scientific sense, especially human genomics because Africa is the cradle of mankind. It's hugely important for this reason alone that we should be part of that scientific endeavour.”

The same can be said for the fields of proteomics (the way proteins coded by the genes function and interact with each other) in living cells and organisms) and bioinformatics, the study of information locked up in genomes.

But perhaps more worrying for Africa is the fact that uninformed societies risk commercial and ethical exploitation in a genomics revolution, with its wide implications of genetic predisposition to certain diseases, behaviour determinism, and so on. “African states cannot afford to be mere observers.”

Described as an “intellectual feast” of eminent human and natural scientists, the conference was initiated by former UCT Dean of Humanities, Professor Wilmot James. James is now executive director of the Human Sciences Research Council's (HSRC) Social Cohesion and Integration Programme and Professor of Business Administration in Diversity Studies, a position that straddles UCT's Graduate Schools of Business and Humanities.

A number of UCT academics and researchers were involved in the conference's five main workshops: Genomic Research; History and Archaeology of Africa; Genetics Research' Ethics and Law; Genomic Research and Education; Biotechnology and Life Sustainability; and Pathogen Genomics and Infectious Diseases. The last was convened by Gevers and Dr James Sakwa, and paid specific attention to Africa's most serious pathogens: malaria, TB and HIV.

“The humane genome has evolved through thousands of generations, but the genomes of our 'parasitic' pathogens have kept pace, though it has been in their interest not to wipe us out, Gevers said.

“Pathogen genomics provide an analytical framework from which to elucidate which infectious organisms in our bodies mutate, and where and why. Combined with a detailed understanding of the mechanics of infection and human responses, this new scientific frontier holds vast promise for the successful development of vaccines and drugs.”

Unfortunately, rumours of war in Iraq and the associated risks of air travel resulted in cancellations among some of the top speakers selected for the conference, notably Nobel Laureate Professor David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology.

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