Africans are more genetically diverse than all other populations combined. Yet, African DNA makes up less than 2% of genetic research material.
Nigerian health tech genomics and AI start-up, 54gene is building Africa’s largest biobank to tap into the multi-trillion-dollar global pharmaceutical industry. Africans are more genetically diverse than all other populations combined. Yet, African DNA makes up less than 2% of genetic research material in Genome-wide Association Studies [GWAS]. 54gene is now positioned to build the largest database of genomic and phenotypic consented data of Africans. The unique data sets will be used exclusively for research; to proactively address the significant gap the genomics market currently poses for Africa, using African DNA to focus on drug discovery opportunities that will improve access.
54gene was founded in 2019 by Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong and named for the 54 countries that make up the African continent. Born in Calabar, Nigeria, to parents who were both researchers and academics, Ene-Obong is uniquely qualified for the job. He has a doctorate in cancer biology from the University of London, a master’s degree in business administration from Claremont College in California and a master’s degree in human molecular genetics from the Imperial College of London.
The company is currently collecting data from ten of the largest research and public hospitals in Nigeria and expects to hold 40,000 samples of participants in its biobank. The current focus is on sampling the genetic material of cancer patients, patients with cardiovascular diseases and metabolic diseases like diabetes and sickle cell anaemia.
Ene-Obong says he became fascinated with genetics from the first moment he took a class in the subject in university. He believes African genetic data may hold the key to unlock medical discoveries in the future. “The osteoporosis drug Romosozumab was discovered by investigating a genetic mutation in South African Afrikaner patients, and Alirocumab, a cholesterol drug, was discovered by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, who identified a genetic mutation in an African population,” says Ene-Obong.
The thesis behind Ene-Obong’s company was enough to attract $4.5M seed round from several investors — including Y Combinator, Fifty Years, Better Ventures, KdT Ventures, Hack VC and Techammer, among others.