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Africa’s ‘omics’ boom sparks ‘huge need’ for data analysis

 Image: janiecbros, via Getty Images

Africa Bioinformatics Institute in the pipeline to manage flood of data, Cape Town meeting hears

A boom in African genomics and other ‘omics’ research has resulted in a flood of data that needs managing, a conference heard this week.

This has sparked proposals for initiatives for data analysis infrastructure that will extend the benefit of the data beyond the lifetimes of the projects that collected them.

Federated network

One such initiative is the Africa Bioinformatics Institute, which aims to create a federated network of computational biologists and data scientists across Africa.

The ABI would build on the H3ABioNet, a pan-African bioinformatics network created under the Human Heredity and Health in Africa programme that supported genomics research in Africa from 2012 to 2022.

H3ABioNet runs out of funding in five weeks’ time, H3ABioNet leader Nicola Mulder told the conference held in Cape Town, South Africa, from 27 to 28 May to launch a plan for an African Population Cohort Consortium.

The APCC aims to network dozens of African population cohorts that follow millions of Africans, strengthening them and putting their data to use in addressing continental health challenges.

The ABI would support projects like the APCC with big data skills, said Mulder, who heads up the computational biology division at the University of Cape Town.

“The idea is that we build it and people can leverage it for their individual projects,” she said.

However, with funding yet to be secured for the ABI, it remains an “ideal, a dream we want to achieve”, Mulder told the gathering, which brought together representatives from 45 population research cohorts from 15 African countries.

African biobank

Another proposal being developed as part of the as-yet unfunded APCC is for a continental biobank to help researchers conduct studies that stretch across Africa’s diverse populations.

Africans are the world’s most genetically varied people, geneticist Michele Ramsay told the conference. Yet their genomes are also the least studied.

The APCC’s biobank project would collect biological samples from 10,000 individuals from 25 different African population research cohorts spanning 15 African countries.

The biobank would help African researchers better understand health profiles across the continent, help calculate the prevalence of diseases—which poses problems at the moment—and provide a baseline for longitudinal studies.

However, the project throws up many challenges in terms of data and sample control, given the continent’s varied biobanking and data protection laws, the meeting heard.

“I think it’s doable,” said Ramsay, who is based at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. The result would be an “amazing and comprehensive database” unlike anything that exists in Africa at the moment, she added.