The genomics of cancer in Africa

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Published: 3 Jan 2024
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Prof Solomon Rotimi - Covenant University, Ota, Nigeria

Prof Solomon Rotimi speaks to ecancer about the history of cancer genomics.

He says that initially in Africa the focus of genomics-based research was on infectious diseases but slowly it has shifted to cancer genomics since a lot of cancers are deeply related to genetic changes.

It is also now a known fact that research for one population sometimes cannot be applied to another population because of genetic differences.

Therefore, it is important to understand the genomics of cancer in the African population and have outcomes tailored for this population.

Prof Rotimi further discusses what has been done so far in this field of research in Africa. 

The genomics of cancer in Africa

Prof Solomon Rotimi - Covenant University, Ota, Nigeria

Could you tell us about the history of genomic cancers?

The history of cancer genomics is such that apparently quite a number of people who actually study genomics in Africa were focussed on infectious disease and not paying so much attention to cancer which actually is one disease that the primary aetiology of it has to do with genetics. Also genetics can be really taken advantage of to really know how to treat it and improve clinical outcome.

So, as a result of that, really for a long time we didn’t have a lot of attention focussed on cancer genomics in Africa, that’s on the one hand. On the other hand, there are folks who also believe that the human populations across the world are essentially homogeneous, which means if you study genomics in one population you can essentially stretch the findings there to other populations. But then they started realising that you have disparities in outcome. So quite a number of us started talking about the need to really understand the genetics and genomics of cancer within the peoples of Africa.

What progress has been made?

As you can see, this conference compared to the conference we had two years ago and, of course, the prior years. It was the last conference that we had virtually that we first of all had a session focussed on cancer genomics. Now this year we now have two sessions essentially, one focussed on cancer genomics and another session focussed on understanding the biology of cancer across Africa. And, pardon me, I’ll actually say three because there’s another session on oncogenetics. So you can see that we’ve made a lot of progress, albeit slow, but I think it’s very significant progress.

About two or three years ago we really had a lot of countries across Africa where we didn’t have any information at all about the genetics of cancer in such countries. Well, things have changed now – we now have information presented, papers and talks presented at this conference, on the genetics of different cancers from across Africa which is very exciting is this momentum that we’re beginning to have within the Francophone countries. I have a colleague who presented from Ivory Coast, a lot of studies being done out of Senegal here, you can give more and more examples. We have investigators who came in from Gabon, from Congo DRC. This is very exciting that we’re beginning to see African investigators showing particular interest in cancer genomics and then generating our own data.

Do you have any projects that you are working on?

Sure, we have a couple of projects but I think the one that is very exciting to us is the project that is funded by the US Department of Defense which is part of the HEROIC particularly because it was actually listed as one of President Biden’s Moonshot Cancer Projects in Africa. We call it iCCaRE for Black Men, which is inclusive cancer care equity for black men. It’s made up of collaboration among institutions in the US and Africa, institutions like the Mayo Clinic, City of Hope, Georgia College and Covenant University in Nigeria.

We have five projects and the one for cancer in Africa is led by myself. We are interested in understanding the genomic and biological factors that contribute to poor outcomes among men who have experienced a diagnosis of prostate cancer. On the other hand we are also using the platform of that project to create a lot of awareness about prostate cancer, to also develop interventions that can help men to have a better experience to diagnosis of this deadly disease.

So the good thing about that study is that we are generating evidence to show that the biological factors and the kind of social factors that we have in Africa are unique and we really need to continue to focus on this population to understand what drives the disease.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Again, I’m very grateful to ecancer for providing this platform for particularly African investigators to communicate their science, particularly to audiences that would typically not read our journals because we write them in very scientific jargon. But right now we are able to explain what we are doing and, again, continue to support AORTIC, continue to support science in Africa, to put the information out there. Thank you very much.