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New grant to establish pan-continental bioinformatics research network in Africa

Victor Jongeneel, director of the High-Performance Biological Computing (HPCBio) program and affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, is a key participant in a grant awarded by the Human Heredity and Health in Africa Initiative, or H3Africa, to establish a pan-continental bioinformatics network to aid research. Founded in June 2010, H3Africa is a joint initiative of the African Society of Human Genetics, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Wellcome Trust, a UK based charity organization, to "study genetic diversity in health and disease in African populations." The grant will dispense approximately $2 million dollars per year for five years to cover travel, training, and technical support.

"This is a great opportunity for African bioinformaticians to be confronted with real and relatively large scale data," Jongeneel said. "The research projects are going to generate all sorts of very interesting data sets. I think that this project could really be a catalyst to develop capability in bioinformatics on the African continent anchored in good research."

Jongeneel's project, which is led by Nicola ("Nicky") Mulder of the University of Cape Town and involves many research groups across the continent, is known as the H3ABioNet. It will serve to aggregate and analyze large datasets, establish collaborations among preexisting bioinformatics centers, and train African students and scientists in bioinformatics.

"We've committed to make trainers available for everything that has to do with applying high performance computing techniques to the analysis of biological data, to helping with the installation of HPC devices, and, if they have trouble processing a large data set because they don't have sufficient infrastructure, we've committed to doing it here," he said.

By harnessing the existing structures of the African Bioinformatics Network and the African Society for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, the H3ABioNet will be the first adequately-funded and pan-continental bioinformatics network in Africa. "We're trying to bring together people from very different research centers with different capabilities," Jongeneel explained.

Aside from bioinformatics, H3Africa research is divided into two areas: communicable and non-communicable disease. Goals include better diagnosis, the development of new drugs, and the development of personal medicine through the study of genome-environment interactions. According to information from the H3A website, "most African countries are being left behind in this genomic revolution and if this is not urgently addressed, genomics will contribute to the widening of global and ethnic inequalities in health and economic well-being."

This will not be Jongeneel's first time in Africa. From 2002 to 2006, he was involved in the development of the South African National Bioinformatics Network, which was led from the University of the Western Cape, and where he served as the chair of the scientific advisory board.

Jongeneel anticipates that some aspects of the program will be challenging. "There is a tendency to organize workshops where people come, are excited, learn lots of things, and then go back to their home country and have no opportunity to actually apply any of what they learned. So there's always an uphill struggle in not only teaching skills to people, but in giving them enough support so that they can actually leverage those skills once they're in their normal working environment," he said.

"We need enough expertise, coordination, infrastructure across the African continent to handle all the data produced by these research projects," he added.

However, Jongeneel is optimistic. "This is a fantastic opportunity to educate not just the African bioinformaticians, but the scientific community in general about what can be done with computational techniques in biomedical research. If this project can generate a few new self-sufficient bioinformatics centers across Africa, that would be a big victory."

Contact: Nicholas Vasi
Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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