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Here’s why 54gene is betting big on precision medicine in Africa

A deal with Illumina, a global medical research organisation, over the week to expand sequencing-based research and molecular diagnostics capabilities, is the latest indication 54gene is placing a long-bet on precision medicine in Nigeria and Africa.

54gene is arguably one of the fastest-growing technology companies in Nigeria, closing an impressive amount of funding in a field of medicine that until now was relatively unknown to Nigerians.

Within six months of its establishment, 54gene secured $15 million. Barely one year it was founded, the company has amassed $19.5 million in total funding according to Crunchbase.

54gene’s ambition is to deepen the practice of precision medicine also known as personalised medicine, a new frontier for healthcare genomics, big data analytics, and population health.

“The addition of Illumina’s cutting-edge technology to our research and diagnostic capabilities is a critical step for 54gene in fulfilling our mission of equalizing precision medicine. This is part of our wider commitment to building capacity and infrastructure in Africa which will allow us to significantly expand genomics research, while also improving health outcomes on the continent,” Abasi Ene-Obong, CEO of 54gene said of the partnership with Illumina.

Ene-Obong founded 54gene in 2019 alongside his friends Damilola Oni, Gatumi Aliyu, and Ogochukwu Francis Osifo.

The partnership with Illumina provides support for the establishment of a new genetics facility in Lagos, Nigeria, equipped with a suite of Illumina’s sequencing and high-density microarray technology platforms, which will generate genetic information for health research and drug development.

What is precision medicine?

The Precision Medicine Initiative defines it as an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person.

Essentially, precision medicine allows doctors and researchers to predict more accurately which treatment and prevention strategies for a particular disease will work in which groups of people.

It is one of the most promising approaches to tackling diseases that have thus far eluded effective treatments or cures. Cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and rare genetic conditions take an enormous toll on individuals, families, and societies as a whole.

The Nigeria healthcare system has been adversely impacted by widespread incidences of medical misdiagnosis or inaccurate diagnosis. Many Nigerians have had bad experiences in the hands of doctors who misdiagnosed their ailments and went on to prescribe the wrong drugs and the wrong treatment. Not many of these patients lived to tell their stories

In October 2019, the Nigerian medical council said it was investigating 120 doctors for various professional misconduct, while 60 others were awaiting trial at a tribunal.

Earlier in March 2019, Ebun Anozie, executive director of Care Organisation Public Enlightenment (COPE), told the Vanguard Newspaper that 70 percent of cancer patients are misdiagnosed.

54gene’s ambition 

54gene sees precision medicine as a continent-wide challenge, this is why its name reflects the 54 countries in Africa. The company plans to build the largest biobank on the continent.

A biobank is a type of biorepository that stores biological samples (usually human) for use in research. Biobanks have become an important resource in medical research, supporting many types of contemporary research like genomics and personalized medicine.

Africa contains more genetic diversity than any other continent because the African genome is the oldest human genome. Yet it is estimated that fewer than 3 percent of the genomes analysed come from Africans, making it a potentially rich source of new genetic information for health and drug discovery research.

In line with that ambition, it launched in January, a study to sequence and analyse the genomes of 100,000 Nigerians. That effort was still ongoing when the COVID-19 struck and forced 54gene to enlist in the fight to stop the virus from spreading. It could have also been a blessing in disguise as it gifted the company an opportunity to test a wider number of Nigerians.

54gene, along with a number of key stakeholders raised $500,000 to support testing efforts across the country. The money was used to purchase and deliver vital molecular testing instruments to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and other public laboratories in Nigeria. These included items such as multiple high throughputs and low throughput PCR machines, automated RNA extractors, magnetic racks, heating blocks, microcentrifuges, vortexes, laptops, and other items.

With the COVID-19 efforts winding down and isolation centres getting closed, 54gene appears to be back on track with its ambition, hence the partnership with Illumina.

Although 54gene would not reveal how much it will cost to set up the genetics facility, BusinessDay’s research finds that the cost of human genome sequencing could go as much as $1000 for one person. But 54gene said having a local facility could reduce the cost of genetics testing.

“Our new facility will enable our team of molecular scientists to genotype, sequence, and analyze our samples without the need to send them overseas. The facility will also enable us to make advanced molecular diagnostics more accessible to the African region. Having local infrastructure will greatly reduce costs and turnaround time for test results,” 54gene told BusinessDay.

Through the partnership,  African samples stored in 54gene’s de-identified Biobank will be genotyped, sequenced, and analysed without the need to send samples overseas.

“It is incredibly important to ensure equitable access to genomic sequencing technology across the world so that genomes can be interpreted in the context of global diversity,” Paula Dowdy, SVP, General Manager EMEA, Illumina said. “Through partnerships such as this with 54gene, we aim to remove barriers of access to sequencing and expand the benefits of genomics to as many people as possible.”

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