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African scientists call for equitable research partnerships to advance microbiome research
Author: Faculty of Science (media & communication)
Published: 28/05/2024

Leading African scientists have issued a compelling call for more equitable research partnerships in a new paper published in Nature Medicine. The paper underscores the critical need for fair and collaborative research efforts to explore the unique and diverse microbiomes found in African populations and environments. Historically, these microbiomes have been underrepresented in global studies.

​Over the past two decades, our understanding of the role played by the microbiome in different ecosystems has significantly expanded. For example, recent studies have provided important insights regarding the role of the microbiome in human health and disease. These studies suggest that the microbiome is highly diverse, in terms of its composition, and varies considerably across different scales. However, generalizing findings across different populations remains challenging due to these compositional differences. Moreover, the lack of comprehensive studies in low- and middle-income countries has resulted in a substantial knowledge deficit, particularly on the African continent. There is strong evidence that Africans harbour highly diverse and distinct microbial communities. Despite this, few microbiome studies have been conducted on the continent. The few studies on African microbiomes are typically conducted without the participation of African scientists, raising concerns about scientific equity and "scientific colonialism."

Key points from the paper:

  1. Need for local leadership: Empowering African scientists to lead research initiatives ensures culturally relevant and impactful studies. The paper highlights the importance of local research leadership in shaping and guiding microbiome research.
  2. Ethical and equitable partnerships: The authors advocate for partnerships based on mutual respect and shared goals. This includes clear guidelines on data ownership and fair distribution of research benefits.
  3. Government involvement: National governments play a crucial role in supporting research through policy development, funding, and creating a conducive regulatory environment.
  4. Standardized protocols: Establishing standardized procedures for microbiome research will enhance the reproducibility and consistency of findings, facilitating global collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Quotes from the authors:

"Investment in local research infrastructure and capacity building will not only advance microbiome science but also contribute to health equity and precision medicine on a global scale," added Dr. Ovokeraye H Oduaran, lead-author and microbiome expert.

"We previously highlighted the need for increasing studies on African microbiomes. As Africans, we must be at the forefront of these studies because they directly impact on our own communities and ecosystems. We need equitable partnerships for achieving meaningful and sustainable research outcomes," said Professor Thulani Makhalanyane, co-author and microbiome scientist.

Proposed implementation framework:

The paper presents a detailed implementation framework to guide equitable research practices. This framework emphasizes ethical considerations, community involvement, capacity building, multidisciplinary collaboration, knowledge translation, and standardized workflows. Key pillars of this framework include:

  • Local Research Leadership: Empowering local scientists to ensure research is culturally and contextually relevant.
  • Contextualized Global Research: Addressing local public health priorities while aiming for globally applicable solutions.
  • Ethical Partnerships: Establishing fair engagement practices with shared goals and clear guidelines on data and sample ownership.
  • Standardized Protocols: Implementing standardized procedures for sample collection, storage, and analysis.
  • Government Involvement: Encouraging active participation of national governments in research initiatives.

About the authors:

This call to action is authored by a diverse group of African scientists from leading universities and research institutions across the continent. Their expertise spans computational biology, human and environmental microbiomes. The authors are committed to advancing scientific knowledge and improving health outcomes through equitable and collaborative research practices.