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Personalised medicine beckons for SA

Personalised medicine for South Africans is a step closer‚ with the announcement on Wednesday that the African Genomics Centre is under construction in Cape Town.

Glenda Gray‚ president of the South African Medical Research Council — which will host the centre — said it “propels South Africa into a new era of medical research and means that we join a small‚ but growing‚ group of countries that are pioneering this type of innovation”.

Gray said the centre‚ being set up in collaboration with the Beijing Genomics Institute‚ would be a “vital national asset‚ able to contribute to the better understanding of factors that impact on the health of South Africans and inform strategies to improve their response to diseases”.

It would mean quicker diagnosis and more targeted treatment of conditions that contributed to South Africa’s heavy burden of disease‚ such as hypertension‚ stroke‚ heart disease‚ diabetes and cancer.

“This novel field of research harnesses the science of genomics for personalised medicine. Knowledge of the DNA sequence has become an important part of understanding disease‚” said Gray.

“By establishing the sequence of an individual’s genetic material‚ it is possible to identify mutations which are specific to that person. These genetic tools will help us understand South Africa’s diverse gene pool and convey insights on treatments for common diseases like diabetes.”

Li Ning‚ chief development officer of the Beijing Genomics Institute‚ said the collaboration would strengthen relations between China and South Africa‚ as both countries had contributed to the establishment of the facility through research capacity‚ funding‚ equipment and other infrastructure.

“We are truly enthusiastic about the scientific breakthroughs we can look forward to as well as the many benefits they will afford to South Africa and Africa‚” said Li.

After a signing ceremony on Table Mountain on Friday‚ the centre is due to open in mid-2018‚ with the Beijing partner providing what it describes as “massive sequencing capacity” to help local scientists overcome local limitations.

“This is a big-data initiative that requires robust ability to work with huge sets of data to create and sustain bioinformatics pipelines and local databases on population genetics‚” said a Medical Research Council statement.