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Research on African microbiomes ‘lacks local leadership’

 Image: DrAfter123, via Getty Images

Continent’s own scientists are being excluded from study design and execution, academics say

Microbiome studies targeting the African continent lack local scientific leadership and input, African scientists have argued in an article for Nature Medicine.

Despite a growing interest in African microbiomes, local researchers have played only tangential roles in study design and execution, one of the authors told Research Professional News this week.

Stellenbosch University microbiologist Thulani Makhalanyane said that studies focused on African microbiomes tend to be led by researchers in the global north, with teams mostly made up of scientists from the US or Europe.

“This has some clear implications,” he said. “For example, because these authors typically do not understand the dietary habits of the people they study, they tend to make flawed inferences and speculations.”

To right this imbalance, Makhalanyane and his co-authors proposed a framework in their article, published on 23 May, for establishing more equitable research partnerships between African and international researchers.

A lack of clear data-handling policies is also limiting the expansion of microbiome research on the African continent, he told Research Professional News. 

Deep insights

Microbiome research provides deep insights into the relationships between the microorganisms living in and on the human body and our overall health.

By revealing how microbial imbalances contribute to illness, such research can change the management of a range of diseases, from gastrointestinal disorders to mental health conditions.

However, unlike in the US and Europe, most jurisdictions in Africa have no legislation on microbiome sample acquisition and data handling, Makhalanyane said. Nor do they have data repositories for the storage and analysis of microbiome data.

He and his co-authors argue that Africa needs a conducive regulatory environment for microbiome research. The continent should invest in research infrastructure, education and support for local scientists, they wrote.

Clear science plans that outline priorities for African microbiome research are also needed, says Makhalanyane. “These plans, together with policies encouraging microbiome capacity development, will help to create a conducive environment.”

The headline of this article was modified on 31 May.