African genetic data may hold the key to unlock untold medical discoveries and 54gene is on a mission to improve our understanding of the human genome.
The Lagos, Nigeria based genomics company offers genetic testing for Africans providing reports on nutrition, health, fitness and weight loss, personal traits, and Ancestry.
We spoke to founder, Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong to learn more about his business.
What inspired you to create 54Gene?
Whilst I was working as a consultant in the pharmaceuticals market, I noticed there was a huge gap in the type of genetic material used in research. Only 2% of genetic material used is African whereas nearly 90% is Caucasian, despite the fact people of African origin are more genetically diverse than all other populations combined.
With 54gene, our aim is to not only address this gap so we can equilibrate medical care for Africans, but also develop treatments from our research that will benefit all populations.
Why does your work focus solely on people of African descent?
There is a limited amount of recorded genetic material from people of African descent. As well as this, the African continent hasn’t built up this genomic capability, so genetic data is not being produced within the continent itself.
Instead, we’ve typically relied on research programs to come into the continent but usually, they’ll go into one country out of fifty four, sample one hundred people from one city, and assume they’ve collected samples from all of Africa.
That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of genetic diversity – it’s coming from one sub-group, whereas there are thousands that exist.
What is your competitive advantage in this industry?
We’re actually developing the world’s first and largest pan-African DNA biobank and we’re planning for this to include 40,000 data samples, by the end of the year. It’s an ambitious project, but one now that we are well placed to achieve.
We’ll be working with health & research institutions, pharmaceutical companies and healthcare regulators to achieve this.
As well as this, we’ve also successfully piloted in three of Nigeria’s largest academic tertiary hospitals and we’ll be expanding our biobanking activities to a total of 10 hospitals soon. The model works, now we have to scale in order to capture the data required to effect change in the global pharmaceutical market.
How can your work improve the global healthcare industry?
A big part of our work is exploring the healthcare benefits of the African genome for all populations, so we’re excited to see where our research takes us.
It’s worth noting that there have been a number of drugs developed from research from African genetic mutations such as Romosozumab (Evenity), an osteoporosis drug and Alirocumab (Praluent), a cholesterol drug.
With this in mind, we’re looking to leverage our data in a number of areas including cancer, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and metabolic diseases like diabetes. Drugs are being personalized for populations; but how can they be personalized for Africa if we don’t have the right data sets in the first place?
Where do you see 54gene in 5 years?
Over the next couple of years, 54 gene will be investing heavily in building data science capabilities to both partner with pharmaceutical companies and find our own targets. My vision is for us is to not only develop new treatments and diagnostics for people of African descent, but for all populations and become a force within the global healthcare space.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Be observant. It’s critical you’re aware of the world around you so you know what problems need to be addressed. Entrepreneurs are people who look at life from a different perspective, so where some people see a problem, they see an opportunity.
More importantly, they also possess the creative thinking to take advantage of it and I think this is the foundation for developing a really strong idea that can make a difference.