Meharry Medical College And Leading Pharmaceutical Firms Launch $80 Million Initiative To Study Genetic Variants In People Of African Ancestry

Meharry Medical College launched an initiative on Oct. 18 designed to study genetic variants affecting Black people along with the Regeneron Genetics Center, AstraZeneca, Novo Nordisk, and Roche. The initiative, officially titled Together for Changing Healthcare for People of African Ancestry through an InterNational Genomics & Equity (Together for CHANGE), is an $80 million partnership between Meharry and the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. 

According to the Associated Press, Meharry, an HBCU, started a non-profit, the Diaspora Human Genomics Institute to manage the data they are looking to collect. The project seeks to collect genetic material from 500,000 people of African descent in order to better map Black people’s genetic highway. The hope is that this material will end up helping create new medicines or diagnostic exams while also reducing health disparities. 

Anil Shanker, senior vice president for Research and Innovation at Meharry, told the AP that he hopes the project bridges the gap in genetic information studied that comes from people of African descent.

“We are going to bridge that gap, and this is just the beginning,” Shanker said.

Meharry’s partners are just as excited about this development in research, as Lyndon Mitnaul, the executive director for Research Initiatives at Regeneron Genetics Center, told the AP, “You can imagine if these schools have such a resource, other academic institutions are going to want to collaborate with them.”

Even though people’s genomes are largely identical, scientists are motivated to understand the variations present in the human genetic code. In May, scientists published four studies relating to an effort to build a diverse reference genome which, at the time, included genetic material from 24 people of African descent. In this new project, Meharry will recruit Nashville area patients to donate their blood, which will be sent to the Regeneron Genetics Center, where it will be sequenced at no cost. 

From there, the data will go into a repository at Meharry’s Diaspora Human Genomics Institute, and the database will be shared amongst HBCUs exclusively and institutions involved with the project in Africa. Outside researchers must contact these entities for access to this genetic information, which will be kept anonymous. 

The University of Zambia in Africa as well as other HBCUs in the United States will recruit volunteers and the project’s organizers have said they are interested in working with universities, medical centers, and health departments in Africa. It is expected that enrollment in the project to take approximately five years. 

The initiative, which will last ten years, also involves creating a grant program designed to support research and education in genomics and other related fields at Meharry as well as STEM programs for grade school students in diverse communities. The corporate pharmaceutical companies are also expected to each contribute $20 million for the genetic and educational components of the partnership. The project is an attempt to correct the underrepresentation of Black people or people of African ancestry in the field of genomics. Currently, the genetic material of that population makes up less than 0.5% of participants in genetic studies. 

James Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry, told Science Magazine, “This is a historic partnership. Nothing like this has ever happened before, when multiple drug companies partner with an academic institution, especially an HBCU [historically Black college or university], to do something like this.”

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