Biology & Evolution Health & Medical

Baby, make those genes talk


You will respond to medication differently to the person sitting next to you. A friend of a different race may be more susceptible to diabetes than you are; you could be at greater risk of developing hypertension.

These signposts, which point to your disease risks and whether a certain medication will work for you, can be read in your genes. But the populations of Southern Africa, where we have the greatest genetic diversity, are understudied. And if they are studied, this information often leaves the country.

“The race issue is contentious, but it’s important,” says Professor Michael Pepper, director of the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Pretoria.

“We don’t want discrimination, but there are groups of people in which one can cluster different sorts of diseases.”

For example, there is a high prevalence of diabetes among Indians, high cholesterol among Afrikaners and the black population is susceptible to certain heart conditions, namely cardiomyopathy, and also malignant hypertension, Pepper says. “If you are a clinician and someone walks into your office, you need to take everything into account in order to develop an idea of what their illness might be.”

However, African genetic diversity has been neglected.

Understanding the interactions between genome structure and environmental influences is essential to interpreting their contributions to the increase in infectious diseases and noncommunicable diseases, exacerbated by adverse environments and lifestyle choices. This is according to Michele Ramsay, chair of the South African Society for Human Genetics and professor in the division of human genetics at the National Health Laboratory Service and Wits University.

She wrote an article in July last year for scientific journal Elsevier, titled “Africa: Continent of genome contrasts with implications for biomedical research and health”.

“The unique genome dynamics in African populations have an important role to play in understanding human health and susceptibility to disease,” she wrote.

Southern Africa is the site of colliding epidemics: infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, HIV and malaria, and lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes, heart diseases and some cancers…

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