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Prescription for progress

27 October, 2023

Medical research has historically been focused on white males. An article by Science magazine suggests that people of African Ancestry make up 0.5% of genetic studies and just 1.6% of the UK Biobank (one of the largest genetic databases in the world). This matters. Biobanks are used to link disease to genetic patterns. By omitting the gene information of whole populations, genetic diseases related to those populations will be missed, and bias is built in to medical systems. 

So is anything changing? Well, for once, it does seem as if there is cause for hope. Four biopharma companies have donated $80 million to begin to address this, partnering with Meharry Medical College in Tennessee to build a biobank made solely of people of African ancestry in the hope to fill the genetic knowledge gap. They are looking for 500,000 volunteers to build a vast bank of data. This could eventually translate to new medicines and diagnostic tests, reducing the stark healthcare disparities that exist between different groups. 

This isn’t the first genetics study of this kind. However, the scale of it, and the focus on knowledge sharing, make it qualitatively different from the past. This study is believed to be set to create the largest database of genomes from those of African ancestry, which could build a big enough picture to make real progress in medicine. Alongside this there is a focus on sharing anonymised data, unusual within pharmaceutical research to speed up integration of data into modern medicine.  

So what do we make of this? It certainly is a long time coming, but we welcome the step forward in diversity of medicine. A step we will be keenly following in the hope that real progress is made to improve global health.

By Anna Heis

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