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Until Recently, Genetic Research in Africa was Scanty

In 1987, 10-year-old Segun Fatumo was on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, hawking palm oil, yams, and pepper each day after school to help put food on the table. In the evenings, he and his family crowded into a two-room dwelling without running water or electricity. He knew nothing of the plan being hatched by U.S. and U.K. geneticists to sequence the human genome. Fast forward more than 2 decades. Fatumo is now a computational geneticist in Entebbe, Uganda, with the Medical Research Council/Uganda Virus Research Institute and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Genome data by the terabytes flow through his seven-person lab, which is working to pinpoint genes involved in heart, kidney, and other diseases. All members of his team are African, the data come from African donors, and the ultimate goal is to improve the health of the people of Africa. Bolstered by the internationally funded Human Heredity & Health in Africa (H3Africa) Initiative, which sponsored Fatumo as a postdoc, these researchers hope to one day use their data to bring genetically tailored medicine to people who in some places still struggle to get electricity and basic health care. The work is beginning to close a wide gap in who benefits from the human genome revolution. “There’s this genomics expansion across the world,” says Neil Hanchard, molecular geneticist at Baylor College of Medicine. “Why should Africa be left behind?”