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GENOMICS AND AFRICAN SOCIETY:
The future health of Africa

Background – Breaking the Genetic Code
After a massive global scientific effort stretching back ten years, the full map of the human genome has finally been completed and published. The breaking of the genetic code, and the secrets it has now exposed, has already sparked a revolution in human understanding. But this is only just the beginning.

The human genome will change our grasp of human origins, of domestication, of migration and of development. It will teach us about the evolution and basis of racial difference. It will inform us how diseases work and how we can respond and prevent them. It will, simply, change our scientific horizons and, with them, the ethical and legal framework within which we operate.

But what does this mean for Africa?
The sequencing of the human genome has enormous implications for Africa, in medicine, in law, in history, in sociology and in shifting Africa’s location away from the periphery of modern scientific and cultural development. There is now little doubt that Africa is the cradle of humankind and that the world’s population scattered the globe from African origins. There is also little doubt that significant scientific advances will soon be made in the fight against malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia and even HIV/Aids. These are almost certain to be achieved as a consequence of our understanding of the human genome and will inevitably have a huge impact on African people. It is also likely to throw new light on human kind’s capacity to shape its environment.

But Africa has been left behind before. It is vital, this time round, that the world remembers Africa as it sets out on this epic journey of discovery. It is also crucial that Africa’s scientists, thinkers and ordinary citizens are not just kept abreast, but take a full part in the project. In fact, Africa has already performed a key role in the human genome intiative. South African geneticist Sydney Brenner won the Nobel Prize for Medicine last year for his work in genomics. World-renowned South African scientist Dr Himla Soodyall recently briefed the South African Cabinet about her discoveries concerning human migration patterns based on the tracking of mitochondrial DNA.

Dozens of African scientists are currently engaged in investigating different aspects of the 80,000 cells that collectively define the characteristics and proclivities of every individual on the planet. It is worth adding that the popularization of science and the advancement of scientific research and education are in keeping both with national political priorities and with the agenda of the New Partnership for African Development.

Cairo 2004: The Conference
Following the extraordinary success of The Human Genome and Africa conference, hosted in March 2003 in South Africa, the decision has been taken to turn the event into an annual forum. It was felt vital that the powerful and resonant themes debated with such vigour must be continued. The decision to host an annual conference neatly dovetails with a series of challenges issued by the World Health Organization in its Genomics and World Health report launched by the WHO at the South African conference.

The WHO concluded its report with the recommendation that societies prepare themselves for the era of genomics and its consequences by:
· Increasing the quality of education in this field at all levels
· Developing mechanisms to communicate these concepts effectively and engaging the general public in an informed dialogue
· Improving awareness and understanding of genetics and its consequences among governments, health services administrators and the medical profession, including the establishment of regulatory systems and ethical review structures to regulate and evaluate the wide variety of technologies that are being developed from genomics
· Facilitating regional networks and establishing centres for genetic research programmes that would address the health problems pertinent to the region.

At the invitation of the Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Centre at Egypt’s Ain Shams University, the 2004 conference will be held in Cairo. It will be entitled “Genomics and African Society: The Future Health of Africa”.

The conference, which will be held at the feet of Egypt’s famous Giza pyramids, has already elicited tremendous excitement in African and global academic circles. A number of top-ranking scientists, including Nobel Laureates, have already indicated their willingness to attend. Among the expressions of interest already received: Professor David Baltimore from Caltech, Dr Marta Lahr from Cambridge, Dr Fekri Hassan from University from University College, London, Professor Hawass, head of the Egyptian Council of Antiquities, Dr Anne Muigai from Kenyatta University in Kenya, Professor Ruth Chadwick from the Wellcome Genomics Centre at the universities of Lancaster/Cardiff, Dr Carl Elliott from the University of Minnesota.

The conference, for which a call for papers has already been published, will consist of three streams:
· The role of post-genomic biotechnology in African development. This theme will be convened by Professor A.Z.E. Abdelsalam from Ain Shams University and Professor Jannie Hofmeyr from Stellenbosch University. The theme will explore issues around HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis, the development and future use of genetically-modified products and discussions around the impact of genomics on African health.
· The ethical, legal and social implications of post-genomic drug and vaccine discovery in Africa. This theme will be convened by Professor Amr Karim from Ain Shams University and Professor Udo Schuklenk from the University of the Witwatersrand. This theme includes an examination of the definition of communities for the purpose of benefit-sharing. One of the objectives is to ensure that local communities that assist with research enjoy the benefits of that work. The theme will also explore the ethical implications of genetic ancestry tracing.
· Genetic bottlenecks, human migration and history and archaeology of Africa. This theme will be convened by Professor Fared El Asmar from Egypt and by Professor John Parkington from the University of Cape Town. This theme looks at a range of issues including the process of environmental modification by humans, the domestication of animals and plants and the role of genomics in understanding the patterns of human history.

An overarching objective of the conference, as it was with the first conference, is the provision of a forum for real debate and discussion on genomic issues between natural and social sciences. In addition, conference organisers have placed special emphasis on the inclusion of emerging African scientists both in presenting their work and in attending the conference as participants.

A vital and unusual element of the conference is the outreach strategy that, it is hoped, will see in excess of 10 million people from Africa being introduced to the concepts and debates of genomics. This will be achieved by a number of means:
· The publication of a daily newspaper at the conference, the Daily Genome, to be used as a news and information service for participants and to supply material to media agencies and organisations. Arrangements have already been made in this regard with Egyptian media managers and editors.
· The coverage of the conference by Egyptian and international media · The publication of a magazine, the African Scientist
· The commissioning of articles on genomic topics and their translation into Arabic and French
· Follow up publication of conference proceedings in newspaper supplements and in book form.
· Establishment of a regularly updated website
· Production of a documentary series

The Organisers
The conference falls under the auspices of the Africa Genome Initiative (AGI), which was established by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) of South Africa under the direction of Professor Wilmot James. Professor James heads the HSRC’s Social Cohesion and Integration (SCI) Research Programme. The AGI works in partnership with other organisations with the following objectives:
· To promote the establishment of South African and African networks among all those engaged in genomic work in whatever capacity, whether scientific, technological, commercial or educational.
· To audit current African resources regarding involvement in the work of the Human Genome Project.
· To encourage the diffusion of up-to-date knowledge regarding the outcomes of the Human Genome Project among school and tertiary students and adult learners, and
· To help strengthen the public's awareness and knowledge of the scientific and other implications of the Project.

The objectives of the AGI cannot be achieved through a single intervention, but require a variety of approaches, each with its own target audience, operating in concert under the auspices of the Africa Genome Initiative.

For the 2004 conference in Cairo, the HSRC’s Social Cohesion and Integration Research Programme will once again be involved in the planning and coordination, principally through acting SCI director Adrian Hadland and conference coordinator Sandy Prosalendis. In Cairo, Professor Wagida Anwar, head of the Ain Shams University Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology holds primary organisational responsibility.

Sponsors of AGI
Key contributors to the work to date of the AGI have included: the Wellcome Trust, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the British Council South Africa, the Royal Netherlands Embassy, the WK Kellogg Foundation, the Department of Science and Technology of South Africa, the Pan-African Environmental Mutagen Society, the Sustainability Institute, the Academy of Science of South Africa, the Egyptian ministry of education and scientific research, the Egyptian ministry of health and population and Ain Shams University.

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Contact Sandy Prosalendis:
sprosalendis@hsrc.ac.za

OR

Contact Vanessa Thomas:
vanessa.thomas@capebiotech.co.za

OR VISIT THE WEBSITE
AFRICA GENOME INITIATIVE


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