Africa: Facilitate Personalized Medicine for Equitable Health, Scientists Say

By Mary Hearty

Africa continues to experience a comparatively high burden of diseases, especially in infectious diseases such as malaria, HIV and non-communicable diseases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

It is estimated that these problems affect approximately one billion people which leads to about 800 billion US dollars loss in annual productivity.

In order to address the issue, scientists are calling for the need to explore new models and tools, particularly personalized medicine, a model that determines how people get and respond to infections, drugs and deliver timely and targeted prevention.

The new tools and approaches used in personalized medicine include self-monitoring and mobile technology to ensure that data collected is addressing populations like geospatial monitoring and genetic testing among other areas.

Since the majority of the population can still not afford it, health scientists have urged the government and insurance companies to facilitate funding for personalized medicine in order to achieve equitable health for all.

Speaking during a virtual meeting on “Personalized Medicine as A Promising Catalyst for Equitable Health”, Dr. Brabia Mukadam, molecular scientist and Head of the Molecular Department of Pathologies at Lancet, Kenya said it would be helpful if insurances get on board, and the government has specific funding for genetic testing so that targeted therapies that come from the results can be used.

“If you have good health insurance, you can access state-of-the-art health care and the doctors would not think twice before ordering genetic testing. And you don’t have to think twice about the therapy which is equally expensive, hence only accessible for the rich,” Dr Mukadam explained.

Although the model uses the characterization of individuals’ observable traits and genes to tailor the right way of treatment for the right person at the right time, the molecular scientist said it is not just about prescribing the best medicine, it can also be used for prevention that is, to predict the likelihood of someone developing conditions, diagnosis and improving treatment.

Dr. Mukadam noted that personalized medicine can be implemented in Africa as the resources for sample collection, data analysis, and data storage are already available.

“We have the resources, and we can use these data to study sections of the populations that can predict the likelihood of diseases,” she underscored, emphasizing the need to combine different types of data including genetic, clinical and lifestyle data to find common factors that hold variations for different groups of people in order to change how diseases are thought of.

Moreover, she noted that for personalized medicine to be accessible, healthcare professionals need to be noble about molecular genetics and biochemistry in order to know how to interpret genetic tests, and understand what the information is about, and how relevant it is to treatment and prevention, and convey this knowledge to their patients.

Dr George Michuki, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at the Africa Genomics Centre and Consultancy who shared similar sentiments about insurance companies facilitating funding for personalized medicine noted that the key challenge is lack of awareness.

“We need to educate people starting from medical doctors, as well as insurance companies as they still don’t cater for tests like genomics,” Dr Michuki suggested.

He noted that application of genomics and bioinformatics in personalized medicine is all about analyzing DNA to determine the changes in the body, especially disease. A gene, for example, may have a problem which may result into cancer.

“This applies to treatment responses as some medications require a specific gene in the body in order to function, meaning we could have variations in terms of genes, hence some medications may work for some people and not others,” Dr. Michuki further explained, noting that this is why it is essential to analyze genetic makeup of people at a personal level to come up with a new way of disease treatments and prevention.

On the limitations of personalized medicine in Kenya so far, he said there is a lack of sufficient data. “From what we have seen, as much as there is no sufficient data, we have enough to actually do at least 30-40% precision medicine,” Dr. Michuki said.

He added that while personalized medicine has advanced in Western countries, especially in treating cancer, progress in Africa has been quite slow. As a result, the tools and techniques being used for treatment are not necessarily tailored to the African population in terms of how the genetic makeup or environment has influenced the African body to respond.

“Leveraging personalized medicine can help us understand the disease in the African population to improve the type of treatment to ensure that we address the disease, and also the issue of medicine not working as well as diseases that are unique to Africans that needs to be treated but may not get the attention because the genetic studies needed to understand them are mainly done using Western population,” Dr Evelyn Gitau, Director of Research Capacity Strengthening at African Population and Health Research Center said

The EU PerMed project has been established to build links between Europe and Africa through personalized medicine. The project is a four-year project funded by the European Commission horizon 2020 program with an objective of integrating more African countries into the global personalized medicine research agenda.

The project aims to facilitate participation of countries and activities that the international consortium for personalized medicine is undertaking, and by undertaking, and by strengthening the research collaboration between Africa and European areas of mutual interest in personalized medicine.

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