Ghana startup strives for greater African representation in cancer research

FILE PHOTO: Dr. Kafui Akakpo, a pathologist, observes a breast lump with a tumour at the Pathologists Without Borders laboratory in Accra, Ghana May 16, 2022. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko

ACCRA (Reuters) – In the open-air kitchen of a small research clinic in Ghana’s capital, Accra, pathologist Kafui Akakpo carefully carved a piece of cancerous breast tissue into a sample smaller than a matchbox.

Hundreds of other samples bobbed around him in plastic jars of formaldehyde, but this one would soon travel across town to Yemaachi Biotech, a Ghanaian research and diagnostics startup that Akakpo thinks could change African cancer studies forever.

“Even though breast cancer has been studied extensively throughout the world, the truth is that most samples are not of Africans,” he said.

Data on cancer in Africa is scarce. While more than 17% of the world’s population, only 2% of genomic study participants worldwide are of African descent, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Yet cancer is a growing problem on the continent, with a recent University of Tunis study projecting African mortalities to exceed the global average by 30% in the next 20 years.

“The majority of medical research (in Africa) is focused on infectious diseases, and yet we have some of the highest cancer mortality rates of anywhere in the world,” said Yaw Bediako, CEO and co-founder of Yemaachi, which launched in 2020.

As one of Ghana’s only labs equipped for molecular analysis, Bediako’s team have tasked themselves with collecting data they believe will advance the development of medicine for cancer patients throughout the continent and diaspora.

Eventually, the startup aims to construct a first-of-its-kind genomic archive of cancers in Black people from around the world.

Akakpo is currently working on a study of the various kinds of breast cancer affecting Black women, whom studies show are disproportionately affected by the disease. Another will aim to sequence every type of childhood cancer in Ghana.

Yemaachi also recently launched Ghana’s first home testing kit for human papillomavirus (HPV), one of the leading causes of cervical cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates more than a third of global cervical cancer deaths occur in Africa.

In just over a year, Yemaachi has raised around $3 million in seed funding, mostly from African investors, plus another $1 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to investigate how Africans respond to COVID-19 vaccines.

“The treatment of cancer is not always going to be in the clinic. Most treatments began on a lab table, so if we want to find a cure in Africa for Africans, then we have to start it here,” said Emmanuella Amoako, Yemaachi’s clinical affairs lead.

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