A workshop focused on building environmental health research capacity within the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) consortium took place Sept. 16 in Kigali, Rwanda. The NIEHS-sponsored workshop was held in conjunction with a joint meeting of the H3Africa consortium and the African Society of Human Genetics.
Kimberly McAllister, Ph.D., program director in the NIEHS Genes, Environment, and Health Branch, and Bonnie Joubert, Ph.D., a program director in the NIEHS Population Health Branch, co-organized the workshop.
The H3Africa consortium is a partnership between the National Institutes of Health, the African Society of Human Genetics, the African Academy of Sciences, and the Wellcome Trust, a global charity based in London. Established in 2010, the H3Africa initiative supports the study of genomic and environmental determinants of common diseases to improve the health of African populations.
“Through this program, the genetic diversity, combined with unique exposures present on the African continent, may allow us to identify gene-environment interactions relevant to a wide variety of complex diseases,” said McAllister.
Sustaining H3Africa objectives
The first phase of the H3Africa initiative was primarily focused on supporting infrastructure and training, to increase the integration of genomics into African biomedical research. The second and final phase encourages studies that explore interactions between environmental and genomic risk factors. NIEHS currently co-funds two projects that specifically explore the role of environmental exposures.
The workshop was designed to provide recommendations for environmental health sciences research and facilitate incorporation of environmental risk factors into existing studies. The goal is to help African environmental health scientists compete for funding from NIEHS and other sources by the end of the second phase of the initiative.
“Building on the genomic research infrastructure established at African institutions, there is strong potential to include gene-environment interaction research in many second phase studies,” said Joubert. “This workshop helped guide the direction of that research.”
“NIEHS was very pleased to be able to provide this environmental health workshop to researchers in Africa,” said Gwen Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training. “We were excited by the depth of interest and exchange of technical knowledge among participants about how to conduct studies on important environmental health issues in countries throughout the continent.”
Investing in the next generation
“Genomics research today underrepresents the diversity of human populations, and much of that diversity exists in Africa,” explained Jennifer Troyer, Ph.D., from the National Human Genome Research Institute and program director for the H3Africa initiative. “This lack of knowledge hinders our understanding of genomic underpinnings of disease, so diagnostics and treatments based on mostly European-ancestry populations may not be as effective for other populations.”
“Africa provides a diverse range of environmental exposures and a rich source of data to understand their impact on health,” Troyer added. This information could be useful globally.”
Workshop presenters covered experimental design, exposures of interest, exposure measurements, biospecimen collection and storage, and laboratory and statistical methodologies. They also discussed training needs and other challenges, populations at risk, relevant health outcomes, and collaborative opportunities.
Participants broke into smaller groups in the afternoon to discuss common and emerging environmental exposures of interest to H3Africa researchers. These included electronic waste, ambient and indoor air pollution, metals, fungal toxins, pesticides, nutrition, and biomarkers of chemical exposures and infectious disease.
Notably, NIEHS offered travel scholarships to allow students to attend the workshop. “They were very excited to be there and seemed to get a lot from it,” McAllister said. “It may be very motivating and stimulating for their early-stage careers. We are investing in the next generation of African scientists.”
(Janelle Weaver, Ph.D., is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)