Africa, in comparison to the rest of the world is most affected by genetically transferable diseases. Until now, there has been relatively little research that expounds what predisposes Africans in Africa and those across the globe to genetic diseases like sickle-cell anemia, diabetes, etc.
Investigating the African genome could inform medical discoveries that will change this narrative in the global healthcare system, for good. One person that understood the potential that this presented in Africa is Abasi Ene-Obong, who by virtue of his father being diabetic about 25 years ago, knew he was at risk as well. He founded the startup, 54Gene, with the intention of gathering sufficient and reliable genetic data on Africans that can assist in medical breakthroughs and solve health problems.
What 54Gene is all about?
54Gene, the brainchild of Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong, was established early 2019. The firm is a private, Lagos-based genomics lab with headquarters in Washington DC. Its name was coined based on the premise that there are 54 countries on the African continent. Genome simply involves the collection of complete genetic information (either DNA or in some viruses or RNA) of an organism.
54Gene labs operate under strict protocols for data collection, consent grants, and privacy. The health firm also collaborates with Nigerian hospitals, health care, and regulatory bodies to gather blood and tissue samples for testing purposes. The startup has a proprietary platform and an engineering team responsible for analyzing and cataloging genetic data.
54Gene aims at researching the genetic characteristics of Nigerians and Africans on a wider scale in the bid to provide data that can aid researchers discover the causes of diseases that are genetically passed to progeny.
This health lab aims at providing data from Africa that will assist other health practitioners and researchers in developing treatments for genetic diseases such as prostate cancer, diabetes, breast cancer, sickle cell, malaria, and other diseases that are common in the African society.
Recruitment of research participants in Africa is done through partner hospitals. At these health-care outlets, genetic samples are collected through swab or blood tests. According to Ene-Obong, these tests are neither conducted nor samples collected without duly granted consent by the participants.
54Gene’s Goal and Purpose
Genomic data from Europe, the United Kingdom, and North America are currently the most used for research purposes in the world, with African data accounting for less than 3%. 54Gene has a plan to bridge this gap by ensuring that there are accessible genomic data on Africa. ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/news_ext_content/ifc_external_corporate_site/news+events/news/insights/i14-54gene?CID=IFC_TT_IFC_EN_EXT
54Gene plans to expand its tentacle from Nigeria to other African countries in the future. The goal of this health lab is to build Nigeria’s largest biobank and expand to other nations. Also, 54Gene campaigns for a form of partnership with pharmaceutical biotech companies to solve the genetic problems that plague Africa.
Recognition and Award
54Gene gained attention almost immediately as multiple investors found the startup very promising. Last year, 54Gene was drafted to a Y Combinator accelerator program, selected for the “Google for Startups” accelerator scheme. A total sum of $4.5 million in seed funds was raised for this initiative from venture capital firms.
April this year, another sum of $15million was invested into 54Gene by a life science fund known as Adjuvant Capital in conjunction with Novartis and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This is quite a record for a Nigerian health startup.
54Gene was also nominated by Techpoint in the awards category for startups that launched between January 1st, 2019, and January 30th, 2020 with impressive traction and milestones. Techpoint.africa/2020/01/06/Techpoint-awards-2020/
54Gene is working with several other institutions in Africa that also aim at controlling, managing, and eliminate infectious diseases in the continent. Some of these partners include the African Society of Human Genetics, H3Africa, the Welcome Trust, the National Reference Laboratory, Redeemers’ University in southwestern Nigeria, and the Africa Center for Infectious Genomics Disease, which is largely funded by the World Bank’s Africa Centers of Excellence initiative. Other major partners include; Adjuvant Capital, Y Combinator, Better Ventures, KTD Ventures, and Pioneer Fund.
54Gene’s Driving Impact
54Gene is a tech Lab that is driven to impact the African health sector and continent in the following ways:
1. Ethical Responsibility: 54Gene strives for community engagement, the welfare and protection of research participants, and strict compliance with Nigerian regulatory bodies to ensure excellent research studies and clinical trials.
2. Job creation: All in the space of a year, the health firm has provided over 300 research jobs to local qualified Nigerians. 80% of 54Gene employees are Nigerians. The company hopes to continue its focus on skilled job creation and education in African countries.
3. Investment in Research Infrastructure: 54Genes’ investment in infrastructure amounts to approximately $5m. These funds were utilized in building world-class genomics and diagnostics infrastructure across Africa.
4. Knowledge Transfer: 54Genes has also invested in developing internationally competitive skills relevant to the African continent. 54Gene educates and cross-train individuals in the field of genomics thereby re-investing knowledge.
5. Empowerment of African Genomics Researchers: The firm also collaborates with Nigerian researchers beyond collecting data. The health lab grants researchers open access to anonymized data for publications and peer-reviews.
6. Environmental Sustainability: 54Gene makes use of renewable energy sources..
7. Extensive Reach: 54Gene is present across the 6 geopolitical zones in Nigeria and collaborates with over 20 leading hospitals in the country.
54Gene’s Contribution amidst the Corona Virus Pandemic
Since the outbreak of the pandemic in march, 54Gene has channeled its resources in creating solutions. The company took the initiative to engage in testing Nigerians for the virus in public health facilities in Nigeria. The 54Gene team also mapped out plans to offer coronavirus screening services in its Lagos laboratory. Upon approval by NCDC, the firm conducts more than 3000 tests per day within the country.
54Gene Covid-19 Efforts at a Peek
-On March 26, 2020, a sum of $500,000 dollars was raised to increase the number of tests across the country.
-On April 27th, 2020, 54Gene received the Nigeria Centers for Disease Control’s (NCDC) approval as an accredited testing network and began testing in Lagos state. Also, a mobile testing lab was launched in Ogun state which was the first of its kind.
-On May 6th and 12th, 2020, mobile testing labs were launched in Kano state and Abuja respectively.
-A mobile testing lab was also launched in Ekiti state on June 1st, 2020. On June 12th, testing began on returnees from different countries into Nigeria. On June 25th, 10 trainees began a 4-week course on molecular science. So far, over 40 molecular scientists on PCR techniques have been trained and empowered with the requisite skills for COVID-19 testing.
-On July 13th, 2020, over 90 Covid-19 workforce members were recruited for training.
-On the 4th of August, 2020, another mobile testing lab was launched in Ota, Ogun state.
54Gene being a startup health lab with less than 2 years of existence definitely deserves compliments for the numerous significant feats and impressive milestones it has achieved in the health sector in such a short time. This is one heath startup that has the propensity to take giant strides that Nigeria and the continent will be proud of. We should all be on the lookout!