There is a genomic revolution happening across the planet, as researchers apply genome science and related technologies to advance the understanding of health and disease in different populations, identifying those who are at risk due to genetic and/or environmental factors for developing specific diseases.
It’s a scattered and somewhat inconsistent revolution, however, as some regions with adequate resources set the pace for discovery, while others are left virtually stranded. Such is the case on the African continent, where many countries are being left behind, a situation that has the potential of widening global and ethnic inequalities in health and economic well-being.
Fortunately, though, a collection of individuals and institutions, including the Georgia Institute of Technology, are responding to the challenge and working to bridge the genomic divide. It’s the kind of bridge-building that King Jordan, a researcher with the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, has grown accustomed to. His lab, and the Bioinformatics Graduate Program that Jordan directs, have been deeply engaged in biotechnology capacity-building efforts in Latin America for close to a decade.
“We’re leveraging bioinformatics and genomics technologies to facilitate public health and to stimulate economic development overseas,” says Jordan, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences, who cites the Georgia Tech strategic vision plan laid out in 2010, specifically goal number four, which involves expanding Tech’s global footprint and influence.
“That is done in two ways,” says Jordan. “One is by bringing the world to Georgia Tech and training more globally-engaged students. The other way is to project Georgia Tech’s reach out to the world, and we’re doing both.”
And now it’s happening in Africa, with the recent announcement that Jordan and one of his former grad students, Daudi Jjingo, have been awarded a five-year, $1.3 million grant as part of the NIH’s Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Initiative. H3Africa aims to elucidate Africa’s human genetic diversity (the highest on the planet) and thus one with a high potential of revealing more varied ways in which the human genome interacts with diseases and other environmental pertubations.
The plan is to use the award to support two trajectories, according to Jjingo, who earned his PhD as a Fulbright fellow in Jordan’s research team at Georgia Tech in 2013 and returned to his home country, Uganda, where he is a faculty researcher at Makerere University in Kampala.
“First we want to focus on building a computing and physical infrastructure, and secondly, we want to actually start a bioinformatics program,” says Jjingo. “The idea is to build a sustainable bioinformatics program.”
There is a lot of clinical research happening now in Africa, Uganda in particular, Jjingo says, and researchers currently lack the bioinformatics resources to adequately analyze all of that data.
“So the vision is, at the end of five years we’ll have this program established, well-staffed, with students graduating,” Jjingo says. “Having talented students who graduate creates the infrastructure – it builds the right recipe to build a research center, which means we can move beyond academia and provide bioinformatics consulting services for industry and others.” Their bioinformatics consulting efforts will be modeled after the Applied Bioinformatics Laboratory (ABiL), a public-private partnership between the Jordan lab at Georgia Tech and the company IHRC Inc., which provides bioinformatics analysis services and training to industry and non-profit clients.
The program in Uganda will begin, Jjingo says, “with about five Masters students and a couple of PhD students, and the plan is that one of them will spend a year at Georgia Tech – from my own experience, I know the huge value you can get by spending a short time there, learning from a mature research environment and ecosystem. And Georgia Tech personnel will come here to Uganda, to conduct short seminars, and so forth. So we’re talking about an exchange of human resources.”
Jordan adds, “one thing we know that is implicit in the notion of mentoring a grad student is the idea of collaborative research. So when you have a graduate student that serves as the fulcrum between two institutions, it provides a great opportunity build bridges. My hope is that those students will engage in collaborative research that will allow for deeper connections between Georgia Tech and Makerere University.”
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience