The 54gene start-up aims to collect data from the African continent for better representation of genetic variability
54gene, an Africa-focused genomics start-up that began in Nigeria, is building the world’s first and largest pan-African biobank and the company has secured US$4·5 million seed funding from international investors to bring the initiative to fruition.
Biobanks have become an increasingly important resource in medicine since the 1990s, supporting studies in genomics and personalised medicine. They have rapidly developed around the world, but not in Africa. This has meant that the continent only contributes 2% of the data used in genome-wide association studies.
Seth Bannon, a founding partner at Fifty Years, a San Francisco-based early-stage venture fund and 54gene investor, says that, globally, the biobank repositories need greater inclusivity and democratisation.
It’s a dirty secret that the world’s genomic datasets are overwhelmingly Caucasian, Bannon said.
Most of the complex diseases are non-communicable…we haven’t focused [on them] so much because we’ve been focusing on communicable diseases. Only now, they are beginning to kill just as much as communicable diseases are, said Abasi Ene-Obong, 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, and 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.
To get individual samples, the start-up engages medical consultants who are involved in the care of patients with the targeted conditions, to address biobanking’s ethical challenges, obtain the necessary ethical approvals, inform patients, and collect and process the samples. Patients’ information is gathered through questionnaires and case notes.
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.