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Lecture highlights those whom genomics has left behind

February 28, 2017

Article by Michael Kim

Last Thursday, the Simpson Center for the Humanities hosted a talk given by Iruka Okeke, a professor of pharmaceutical microbiology at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.

Johanna Crane, an adjunct assistant professor who studies global health sciences, introduced Okeke. Crane described the emphasis of Okeke’s last book on adequate diagnostics in emergencies as “hauntingly prescient” for the Ebola crisis of 2014.

“In the book, she described the challenges and uncertainties that were faced by African researchers and doctors who had to do their work without adequate access to laboratory technology they needed,” Crane said.

Okeke began by describing her work with diarrheal pathogens. Though the field has produced many vaccines to prevent diarrheal deaths, the vaccines do not to prevent diarrheal bouts that, while not fatal, can cripple young children’s health.

While better water, sanitation, and other factors would help, Okeke also showed existing African vaccines sometimes do not follow standard medical procedures. Data on these vaccines is also collected solely from western travelers, not locals, and existing vaccines do not target the largest African strains of the disease.

“The funders that I approached said ‘Why would you want to do that? Diarrhea has been done,’” Okeke said. But the inadequacies of past studies led to her desire to “redo diarrhea.”

Okeke detailed the genomics revolution, a rapid evolution in the capacity to synthesize genomes, and its effect on expanding vaccine and diagnostic possibilities.

Crowdsourcing analysis of sequences generated by robots has been the new frontier in quickly developing vaccines. However, “none of this curiosity-driven analysis took place in Africa,” according to Okeke.

“You can’t just expect things to come from genomics; you actually have to make them come from genomics,” Okeke said. “So some of my thinking about genomics science in Africa is: How do we actually make genomics science yield outcomes for African countries?”

In examining African coauthors on genomics papers, Okeke found that almost all instances of Africans working on projects were in contributing DNA samples for analysis. However, Okeke asserted “Africans do not want to be conduits for materials.”

The real question is why this geographical inequality exists.

Okeke cited the fast-moving nature of genomics as the reason for a lack of African involvement. Like a “merry-go-round,” the field has to either slow down, you have to run on, or someone has to swing you in to be a part of it. But the opportunities to swing on are often few and far between.

“Where do these opportunities come from, how does one get credibility, how does one get swung into this roundabout?” Okeke asked. “One of the opportunities is actually the disease.”

Ebola presented an opportunity for labs in her country. While other countries would not accept potentially virulent samples, Nigerian labs processed them alone for the international community.

“The disease opportunity there, and building around that, is actually very crucial for both the inside partners — the Nigerian partners who benefited from the long-term collaboration — as well as external partners,” Okeke said.

This African involvement in the process can be beneficial because “having some first-hand experience can actually make you more alive to the material outcomes,” Okeke said.

In studying the buruli ulcer vaccine, Okeke noticed that people doing science in endemic areas produced more outcome-focused papers.

In summation, Okeke said that Africans, while often sidelined in the genomics field, can provide more than just data. Given proper opportunity and driven by primary exposure to the diseases, these scientists could be powerful allies in genomics research.

Members of the audience agreed with Okeke’s narrative, with one audience member positing that “data is the new oil; it’s this resource to be extracted from the developing world.” Many questioned what changes could be made to the industry as a whole.

Okeke, though admitting she has never worked within the field, pointed to funders as having the force to change the industry. An emphasis on goals other than rapidly acquiring data and using local institutions could affect changes. She also pointed to African countries as having “negotiating power” in their material transfers.

“The question is, how much of a carrot and a stick do you need to make it happen?” Okeke asked.

Humanistic Perspectives on US Global Health Partnerships in Africa and Beyond, a project of the Simpson Center for the Humanities. Co-sponsored by the Department of Global Health, the African Studies Program, and the Center for Global Studies.

Reach reporter Michael Kim at Twitter: @baywatchbeauty