By Sharon Atieno

Personalised medicine (PM), a kind of treatment where the person is given medicine that is specific to their disease based on their genetic makeup, has been flaunted as a game changer in controlling the disease burden in Africa.

The continent experiences a comparatively high burden of disease, particularly infectious diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and non-communicable diseases like cancer, hypertension, cardiovascular and diabetes, which affects an estimated one billion people, according to World Health Organization (WHO).

Speaking during a European Union (EU) and East Africa Stakeholder workshop on PM in Nairobi, Kenya, Prof. Walter Jaoko, Professor of medical microbiology and tropical medicine, Director of KAVI said that in areas like diabetes and cancer whereby some drugs work for certain populations and not others, doing a genetic makeup will help in coming up with the best treatment.

Besides getting specific treatment, Prof. Jaoko said, PM reduces wastage of medicine which comes as a result of giving a patient drugs which will not work on them.

Prof. Jaoko during an interview

Dr.Khadija Yahya Malima, Chairperson Research Ethics Committee, Tanzania noted that this kind of treatment model can be used to prevent and treat diseases that are non-communicable such as cancers, diabetes and congenital anomalies which can be genetically modified.

In Tanzania, for instance, Dr. Malima noted that PM can be capitalized to help reduce the burden of sickle cell anaemia which is estimated to be at about 11,000 births a year.

PM has four main components which include understanding genetic differences and how they relate to people and their interaction and responses to disease; the access, understanding and use of technology to do DNA analysis; data on African population genomics; and adequate infrastructure in the health system to accommodate research and implement targeted diagnosis and treatment processes.

With regards to this, the country representatives from Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania noted that there is still a lot to be done for Africa to be ready for this kind of treatment model.

In Kenya for instance, representatives led by Dr. Evelyn Gitau, Director of Research Capacity Strengthening at the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC),noted that the 0.9% government funding for research was not enough to support research in this treatment model as the money is not only allocated for human health research but other research areas including agriculture and others.

Dr. Evelyn Gitau, APHRC

In addition, she said the issues around human genomic data may be a  barrier in the implementation process because the Data and Protection Act has not yet been unpacked to allow scientists see how best they can use data from human genome sequencing. “We need to unpack some regulatory frameworks to allow us to fully explore and utilize personalized medicine,” Dr. Gitau said.

For Tanzania, Dr. Malima said that though there are laboratory facilities, most are not fully equipped to do genetic analysis.

Additionally, she noted that coordination of research within the research institutes was an issue of concern because each institute had different mandates. Thus, for PM to be implemented successfully there was need to unify research that was being done.

Health literacy is also a challenge, according to Dr. Malima as the country still struggles with infectious diseases which can be treated and controlled.

To better implement PM in Tanzania, she notes that there has to be genetic counselling and the society needs to understand what genetics is. This includes translating all this information into Kiswahili, a language which the people understand.

Dr. Khadija Yahya Malima

In Uganda, the representatives pointed out that data science capacity required to store and analyze data including tools is not there, yet it is a key component of PM.

Also, they said there is low interest in studying courses like genomics and genetics among others which are crucial for implementation of PM due to lack of opportunities for practicing this knowledge.

In Ethiopia, currently there are no national computing facilities thus would hinder exchange of data, the representatives noted, adding that another challenge was the lack of coordination among research facilities.

Though funding is not an area of concern in Rwanda, representatives noted that the scarcity of human resources in the field of PM is a challenge.

The workshop was held to discuss opportunities and challenges facing implementation of PM in the region. It was a follow up to a previous virtual workshop that had been held on 9th and 10th February, 2022.