Advancing DNA studies

Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) chief development officer, Dr Li Ning and South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) president, Professor Glenda Gray, sign an agreement for the genomics facility.

A state-of-the-art centre that will study changes in human DNA to improve diagnosis and treatment of some of South Africa’s deadliest diseases is set to open in Parow Valley.

This follows an agreement between the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) last week. BGI is contributing equipment, technology transfer and training on genomic sequencing in the R95 million project.

Expected to open its doors in mid-2018, the African Genomics Centre will do be able to do large-scale studies on whole genome sequencing – essentially, studying the changes to human beings’ building-block code. It’s these mutations that can cause disease.

SAMRC president, Professor Glenda Gray, said the centre would be a vital national asset.

“This means that conditions that contribute to our heavy burden of disease in the country — such as hypertension, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cancer — can be diagnosed faster and more accurately, and treatments delivered in a more targeted, effective and cost-efficient way,” she said.

Professor Gray said the development would propel the country into a new era of medical research as it joined a small but growing group of countries pioneering this type of innovation.

“Knowledge of the DNA sequence has become an important part of understanding disease. By establishing the sequence of an individual’s genetic material, it is possible to identify mutations which are specific to that person.

“These genetic tools will help us understand South Africa’s diverse gene pool and convey insights on treatments for common diseases like diabetes.”

Ronnie Mao, from BGI, said there had been remarkable advances in genomics globally and the new facility could help shape the country’s landscape to meet the demand of local researchers.

“The centre has the potential to play a future role in providing genetic services to the public,” he said.

BGI chief development officer, Dr Li Ning, said the collaboration was positive for science and would strengthen bilateral relations between China and South Africa, as both countries had contributed to the establishment of the facility.

“We are truly enthusiastic about the scientific breakthroughs we can look forward to as well as the many benefits they will afford to South Africa and Africa,” said Dr Li.

Rizwana Mia, the head of the SAMRC’s precision medicine programme, said the facility would create momentum for the study of genomics and cut through red tape, as samples would not have to be sent overseas.