Nigerian health tech startup 54Gene has announced the completion of a lab capable of carrying out whole genome sequencing of humans.

Abasi Ene-Obong, the startup’s CEO, said the lab is powered by Novaseq 6000, a best-in-class sequencing technology solution produced by American biotech company Illumina. 

Located in Nigeria, this lab is the product of a partnership between Illumina and 54Gene announced in the first week of September. 

At the time, Ene-Obong said the partnership would help 54Gene “make advanced molecular diagnostics more accessible to the [Africa] region, while creating hundreds of skilled jobs in molecular biology and bioinformatics.”

With the lab now completed, African samples stored in 54gene’s biobank can be genotyped, sequenced and analyzed without having to send them overseas. This should reduce the financial costs and time taken to carry out these processes. 

Beside the capacity for whole human genome sequencing, Ene-Obong says the lab “hosts a suite of other molecular genomics capabilities.”

Founded in 2019, 54Gene has emerged as one of Africa’s most intriguing startups in health research. Its push into DNA research on Africans has earned it recognition for charting the way in a specialised territory where precision engineering meets precision science.

54Gene aims to produce groundbreaking knowledge on the genetic makeup of Africans that will produce original healthcare solutions more suited to the continent’s populace. A genome sequencing lab located in Africa is one giant step on that mission.

The African genome is believed to be the oldest human genome. As such, Africa has more genetic diversity than any other continent. However, less than 3% of genomes analyzed in global health research comes from Africans. 

54Gene is positioning to plug this gap and seize the opportunity that could come from building an unprecedented knowledge base on African DNA. Ene-Obong, who holds a PhD in cancer biology and two Masters – in business and management, and human molecular genetics – has gone about this task with rapid intentionality with support from local and international venture capital.

They have raised two distinct rounds; a July 2019 seed round of $4.5 million, and a $15 million Series A in April this year led by Adjuvant Capital, a fund backed by the International Finance Corporation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

At the peak of Nigeria’s pandemic response, 54Gene was a visible actor in assisting government efforts. First by raising $500,000 in March through a crowdfund to boost capacity for COVID testing, and later by rolling out mobile test labs in some states. 

In October, 54Gene was made the Nigeria country partner for the International Registry of Healthcare Workers Exposed to COVID-19 (UNITY Global) Study. This happened around the time the startup launched its Clinical Program Services. 

The division’s mandate is to provide end-to-end clinical development services, intelligence, logistics, and infrastructure for clinical trials in Africa, beginning with Nigeria.

Alexander Onukwue Author

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