New program aims to build genetics research capacity in Africa

GINGER Curriculum Jamboree participants
Kristi Post, GINGER program manager (center), with Zukiswa Zingela of Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, South Africa, and Dickens Akena of Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda

February 24, 2017—A new collaboration between researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and six African universities and institutes aims to boost genetics research capacity in Africa, and ultimately to help close gaps in knowledge about mental health in a population historically excluded from genetics research.

The GINGER (Global Initiative for Neuropsychiatric Genetics Education in Research) program has recruited 17 young African scientists who, over the course of two years starting this July, will attend workshops in Boston and London on topics including epidemiology, bioinformatics, genetics, and grant writing. In between, they will return to their home universities, where they’ll receive virtual mentoring and onsite research skills training. The trainees will ultimately become trainers themselves, and share what they’ve learned with their colleagues.

On February 3, 2017, GINGER hosted a “Curriculum Jamboree,” sponsored by the Harvard Chan School and the Stanley Center. Thirty researchers from the U.S.—representing the School, the Stanley Center and the Broad Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Boston University—together with collaborators from partner institutions in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, and the United Kingdom attended the event. Over the course of a day spent brainstorming ideas and debating curriculum design, they emerged with a plan for the program’s course offerings.

Dean Michelle Williams
Dean Michelle Williams

“Great science and great discoveries come from people who work together,” Harvard Chan School Dean Michelle Williams said in her opening remarks. Steve Hyman, director of the Stanley Center, echoed that message and spoke about the importance of expanding psychiatric genetics research globally.

Program director Lori Chibnik called the day a success—and a true collaboration, with senior faculty leaders from the African host sites participating and ensuring that all aspects of GINGER are a good fit with each institution’s needs and capacities. Chibnik is an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and runs the program with associate director Bizu Gelaye, a research scientist and lecturer with appointments at both schools.

Program director Lori Chibnik address attendees
Program director Lori Chibnik address attendees

Chibnik hopes that trainees will ultimately become independent investigators, some working with a research effort already underway at the program’s African partner universities. The Neuropsychiatric Genetics in African Populations (NeuroGAP), a joint effort by Harvard Chan School and the Stanley Center, and directed by Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at Harvard Chan School, is structured around two studies looking at psychosis and neurodevelopmental disorders in African populations. Over the next three years, NeuroGAP will collect saliva samples from 40,000 cases and controls for genetic analysis. The aim is to fill a significant gap in research knowledge about the underlying genetic determinants of disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.

Historically, large-scale genetic studies around neuropsychiatric disorders have primarily used genomes with European ancestry. Continuing this pattern risks the possibility that therapeutic innovations might exclude large segments of the global population, according to Koenen. NeuroGAP aims to expand knowledge around genetic diversity by expanding the pool of samples. The program also ensures that more African scientists have the knowledge and skills to conduct genetic research on their own populations through capacity-building programs such as GINGER.

Dickens Akena, a psychiatrist and lecturer at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and a NeuroGAP investigator, sees GINGER as an exciting opportunity for promising young African scientists to develop the skills to share their ideas with the world. “My hope is that the program will bring the best out of the candidates we choose,” he said. “And in five to ten years, I hope that we will have developed a group of scientists who will be able to mentor younger scientists and compete favorably with their colleagues across the globe for research funding.”

NeuroGAP investigator Solomon Teferra, an associate professor of psychiatry at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, and a visiting scientist at Harvard Chan School, said that there is a tremendous unmet need for mental health services in Africa. By helping develop a better understanding of the genetic determinants of mental disorders in African populations, the knowledge generated by GINGER’s new cadre of researchers may ultimately improve many lives.

Amy Roeder

Photos: Rocky Stroud II; Sarah Sholes