In 2008 I worked at the philanthropic arm of Google, Google.org, on an initiative to use genetic and digital detection tools to discover and report emerging infectious diseases earlier and closer to the source (Predict and Prevent). We developed technology at Google such as Google Flu Trends and gave grants to initiatives such as HealthMap, and virus hunters such as Nathan Wolfe. New infectious diseases are likely to emerge in hot spots in SE Asia or Africa – but while samples are collected there, nearly all of the scientific discoveries are made in labs in the US or Europe – where the equipment (such as high through-put molecular sequencers) and the scientists experienced working with these is more readily available.
In Nairobi, ICIPE and KEMRI were working on insect-transmitted arboviruses such as Rift Valley fever, and ILRI was working with NEPAD to set up the BecA-ILRI Hub as an African center of excellence in the biosciences. Working with all these partners we were able to develop and fund a project we called the Arbovirus Incidence and Diversity Project (AVID). The project funded massive sampling of wildlife, livestock, insects and people; the storage and data-management of these samples in bio-repositories and the analysis of the samples – all in Nairobi. For the BecA-ILRI Hub this also meant “the acquisition of diagnostic and genomic platforms consisting of a high-throughput differential diagnostic screening system based on multiplex high-throughput technology and pyro-sequencing platform both of which will generate considerable amounts of data that will play a critical role in identification, prediction and prevention of emerging infections” (see here).
Earlier this month I visited the BecA-ILRI Hub again and had a chance to follow up on what had happened next. I had the same tour of the facilities that I had in 2008, but what were empty spaces then is an amazing beehive of activity now. Labs full of young African scientists from all over the continent. In 2012 the Africa Bioscience Challenge Fund (ABCF) provided Research Fellowships to 52 African scientists to do their research on the BecA-ILRI platform. As Jagger Harvey explained to me, the research fellows spend 8-9 months in Nairobi to do their research in the BecA-ILRI biosciences labs and then return to their own labs. Current Hub activities (research, capacity building and training, and technologies and research services) are principally funded by grants from The Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, Australian AID (AusAID), the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Sweden (Sida and the Ministry for foreign affairs) in addition to ILRI financing. Note: The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) provided the significant funds needed to establish BecA. Early and long-standing commitment from the Africa Union/New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AU/NEPAD) also made this dream a reality.
Walking through the labs I also met scientists from several other CGIAR research centers that use the BecA-ILRI facilities to do their molecular research as well. CIMMYT scientists, for example, use the facilities to do part of the molecular pre-breeding work on improved maize varieties for Africa here in Nairobi, and then continue that work in Mexico.
Steve Kemp of ILRI, and an AVID-team member, explained that the AVID project started what is now a major biorepository with three hundred and fifty thousand samples safely stored in five big liquid nitrogen tanks, with a host of data associated with each sample in a databank. I met Absolomon Kihara, the bio-informatician initially employed by the AVID project who set up the biorepository data management system.
I also met George Michuki, the PostDoc hired by the AVID project to do the molecular work and asked whether having the Roche 454 sequencer at BecA-ILRI had been useful – since many thought in 2008 that such an advanced system would not be used for real research in Africa. He told me that in fact the 454-platform had been instrumental in several virus discoveries and a series of other BecA-ILRI projects. Publications resulting from the AVID project are still coming out. The 454 platform has already become obsolete and is now being replaced by a state-of-the-art Illumina sequencing platform. Illumina, recognizing BecA-ILRI’s status as a scientific center of excellence recently awarded the Hub a grant, in the form of donated reagents, to support its cassava brown streak work, virus discovery and tracking of other crops and mix crops systems, comparative livestock pathogen genomics to aid the development of better diagnostics vaccines and to continue to uncover the livestock genetic diversity in Africa.
Seeing the vitality and dynamism of this major African center of excellence in the biosciences in action was a real highlight of my visit to Nairobi. What was considered risky, and maybe even impossible to do in Africa, just 5 years ago has become reality – a true success story for research in development. That provides me great encouragement to dare to dream: what may not seem possible today can become reality tomorrow.
For more information:
“The Hub” – a short photofilm where Research scientist, Appollinaire Djikeng, talks about the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub.