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Towards a DNA Revolution in Ghana – Interview

Authors: Osman Abdulai Seidu & Yahaya Sumara Sulley

(Faculty of Biosciences, University for Development Studies, Tamale)


We may not find ourselves in the position to fill in the blanks of Watson and Crick but what have we done so far as beneficiaries of their great discovery? We do hear so much of the DNA and biotechnology revolution these days and if it works, we are expected to live healthier and longer lives. This will happen because it is expected that many of the major ills of man that could be linked to health, agriculture and crime will be detected, predicted, and ultimately solved through new means. Is Ghana ready?

On Wednesday, March 16, 2022, at 01:30 GMT, we interviewed Dr Francis Addy to get his expert opinion and knowledge of DNA applications in his line of research and development in the country. Dr Addy is a Lecturer and Researcher in the Department of Biotechnology at the Faculty of Biosciences at the University for Development Studies. His research cuts across many areas of molecular biology and he primarily works on animal parasites, basically molecular parasitology.

Yahaya Sumara Sulley: What have you been doing so far in terms of research work?

Dr Francis Addy: What I have been doing so far cuts across many areas of molecular biology and it stems from the time of my master’s degree in Kenya. I joined a research group where we used PCR tools to genotype a Taenia spp. My interest grew in that area and that continued with my PhD. I have been researching the genetic diversity of helminths in general with a biased interest in Taenia spp. mainly Taenia hydatigena and Taenia solium. Over the years I have found myself working on Fasciola and Ascaridia spp too. I use specific molecular markers such as mitochondrial DNA to genetically characterize the local population of Taenia spp and then compare them with global sequences that are available in public databases such as the NCBI. I then make a map out of how the local genetic diversity or the local genetic population fits in the global perspective mostly to tell which population predates the other. Because I deal with parasites that are known to move with their host, such analysis helps to trace the origins of parasites and their route of dispersal. Domestication events have been documented in different contexts which makes genetic analysis more complex. Nevertheless, the basic hypothesis is when the population had settled for a long period, you expect it to have had enough time to evolve and accumulate wide genetic diversity compared to a newly found population. This is even true in the case of humans. I don’t know whether you’ve heard about the out of Africa hypothesis that shows that the genetic pool of the human race in Africa is the highest.

Yahaya Sumara Sulley: What are your research instruments and how would you measure the efficiency?

Dr Francis Addy: In my scope of work, I use both Basic biology laboratory tools as well as specialized tools. So it involves both field and laboratory work, and then in silico analysis. Depending on the kind of sample that we are targeting, say, if it is all parasites from animals at the slaughterhouse, then we will need good field sample collection tools to hold some samples without compromising the integrity of the samples. The lab is where we use specialized equipment to handle the samples further. In the case of DNA, we follow the principle of breaking the barrier to access the DNA and then purifying it. So breaking that barrier, here we are referring to working in the case of animal parasites. Once you break the cell membrane, you have access to the cytoplasm. Now you have access to the nucleus. Of course, we use chemical agents to break the cell membrane and then the separation of the cell membrane and other debris is done by the centrifuge. After the DNA has been extracted, its purity and quantity are determined with the NanoDrop spectrophotometer. Then at the molecular bench, the last bit of it is, that we have extracted DNA containing also the marker of interest where you want to study, but that isn’t enough because the copy number of such markers may be very low for detection. So we amplify, in a layman’s term you want to make much more copies of the gene of interest or the marker of interest to be able to see or view and detect the presence or absence before we go into sequencing. We use specialized equipment generally referred to as a thermal cycler to amplify the marker. And so what is being done in the lab is doing an in vitro amplification or multiplication of the DNA to mimic what would have happened in vivo under normal physiological. Unfortunately, we do not have a DNA sequencer in our laboratory so we proceed to do commercial sequencing with a company in South Africa. And then from there, we do the sequence analysis.

Yahaya Sumara Sulley: How have the DNA technologies available impacted your research?

Dr Francis Addy: So DNA technology or advancement has shaped the field of biology in this 21st century. Notable advancements actually started in the 19th century, but as the years go by, the advancements get better and as it stands now, generally speaking in the field of biology, you cannot describe any organism without describing it to the nucleic acid level or its genetic makeup. Gone were the days of Gregor Mendel when genetics was about crossing, but in recent times, genetics is about coming down to the genotype level because it is the DNA that defines every organism. The advancement of identifying markers, genetic markers of organisms and mixing several copies of DNA or amplification is one technology that has impacted to a very large extent, not only what I do, but biological science as a whole. Then the other aspect is the databases that have been made available as a result of the computer revolution. The explosion of genetic or public biological databases and bioinformatic tools has made it such that, local experiments in biology attract global perspective and relevance. So you are in Nyankpala doing your research, once you get the DNA sequence, your research immediately ceases to be a business of Nyankpala alone. It becomes immediately available as research of global significance. So that is one other aspect of scientific advancement that has shaped the kind of work that I do.

Yahaya Sumara Sulley: Let’s talk about almost 10 years of genetic or molecular characterization;  How is the local livestock farmer benefiting?

Dr Francis Addy: To start with, we have various types of research. We have what we call the basic research and we have the applied research. And within these two main categories, you still have subsections and they serve different purposes. But none of them supersedes the other, depending on how you look at it. What I do is more of basic research. It is not having one specific problem at hand that it is going to solve immediately with the data that is obtained. You can liken it to the present pandemic that we are in, if you could recall when the vaccine, project was rolled out and they started vaccinating, and then they realized that the AstraZeneca vaccine was not effective against the South African strain of the COVID virus in South Africa. I don’t know whether you can recall that. And then they got samples from that locality to study it further. What makes that population unique? But that initially isn’t applied research. It is basic research to understand the genetic diversity of the virus in such a locality because the assumption would have been that, that’s not the right vaccine for the population. So basic research like genetic diversity has a very important significance. For control of such disease-causing agents, even in the case where you are studying the genetic diversity of let’s say, well, not a disease-causing agent, but let’s say the hosts, for instance, your interest is in livestock genetic diversity. Yes. That basic research will still impact livestock breeding because you tend to now get to know which of the livestock populations are closer to the wild, and which of them have been domesticated for far too long. And which of them have lost or gained more important genes or more economically important genes that you could explore? That is what we refer to as, basic research. I don’t encourage the importation of interventions but that’s the biggest problem in this part of Sub-Saharan Africa and very typical case of Ghana. Because we want an immediate solution we tend to import a lot of technologies from societies where they took the time to investigate and understand their environment, and then from there new solutions could be proffered. Where you don’t have a good grip on the basics as His Excellency, the Vice President of Ghana will say “if your fundamentals are weak the exchange rate will expose you”, if you do not know much about what you claim to be solving, chances are that you will create more problems. And that is one of the issues we are battling with. If you look deep into the problems, be it in health, be it in agriculture is in the economics of this country. Think about our agriculture, we don’t even have a database of our indigenous agricultural resources. Think about health, we don’t research to understand the diversity of our pathogens and parasites, and I mean infectious disease, infectious disease agents that are affecting us here. And so we import wholesale solutions that when you start using them here, It doesn’t help the entire population because we again find ourselves in the global south of the equator where biodiversity is expected to be highest. Basic research is what I do, with very minimal applied research. But it’s research that on the surface, we may think has no value, but it’s supposed to influence interventions, influence policy and influence practices.

Yahaya Sumara Sulley: I would like to ask if you take your research back like 40 years ago, how would it have been significant to agriculture in Ghana?

Dr Francis Addy: Oh, fantastic question! 40 years ago! If that were the case, with the speed and the depth of work, I’m doing at the moment and with the present data, at hand, it would have influenced policies regarding veterinary care of livestock and could have led to designing, therapeutic interventions that are more peculiar with the livestock population in Ghana. It could also have influenced drug design and drug administration and all of that as well as education. Our forefathers did their best, but 40 years ago, the kind of technologies that we have now was not there. And so, they documented this very parasite that I’m investigating, they are not new, they documented them to be prevalent in Ghana but not in that depth. In one of my recent works, we characterize the genetic marker of a Taenia, that as it stands now, seems to be novel that’s never been described before, because there are no deposits or sequences of it in the database. But the same I have read papers that were published 20 years, 30 years ago in Ghana from a similar or same locality in Ghana, where they described it as one species and it’s because at that point they were using the morphological description. So that’s why I say that, what I do now if it were available 40 years ago, it would have enhanced the education, and we would have understood our systems better. We would have been able to prescribe or profess solutions that tackle problems peculiar to this environment.

Yahaya Sumara Sulley: What about funding for your research? Do you get financial support for your research?

Dr Francis Addy: Yeah, that’s a good question! No official funding has come in yet. The resources that I have particularly with equipment were initially funded. I was quite fortunate on my return from studies I came along with some equipment to work with and they were provided for me by the project that I worked on, which is originally called Cystic echinocccosis in Sub-Saharan Africa research initiative. It’s a consortium and so the consortium supported me to extend the work to Ghana as it stands now we have not had any funding that’s brought in money, but I could not also afford to fold my arms.  So much of the work, the rest of the work I’ve been doing since I returned in 2017 November, has been basically from my income source. But we are hoping that with preliminary data at hand we could write winnable proposals to get some good funding to do quality research.

Yahaya Sumara Sulley: So talking about doing quality research, in 25 years where would your research end? Would you want to train individuals to take that path? Or what are the plans for the future looking at your works so far?

Dr Francis Addy: It’s good you’ve given me a blank cheque. So now let me write what I want. In the next 20 to 25 years, I want to raise a new crop of molecular parasitologists in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the next 20 to 25 years, I would establish a reference lab for molecular parasitology with reference parasitic materials for the training of students and post-graduate students in particular. And I mean, not only the reference lab but a centre of excellence, perhaps. That will tackle parasitic infections, the basic biology of such parasitic infections in Sub-Saharan Africa, not only in Ghana but as a centre with relevance in the sub-region and of global significance.

Yahaya Sumara Sulley: If I understand you, the issues that you are tackling here in Ghana are likely to run through the Sub Saharan Region?

Dr Francis Addy: Yes, I would say if you had followed quite closely, I kept saying that in molecular biology, especially where you are sequencing DNA or RNA or protein, your local data immediately becomes global data. Yeah, and my samples are primarily low-cost samples, but the data immediately becomes global data and I’ll paint this picture. When I was doing my PhD for instance, I began my work with samples from Africa, but before I could finish, I had samples from Latin America, I had samples from central Europe to compare with, and these were not only in silico DNA sequences, they were real samples that individuals gave to me to use. So yes, I may not have the luxury of going to every continent to take samples, but what I do here has a global comparison with samples from elsewhere.

Osman Abdulai Seidu: Looking at the nexus between animal and human health and the research you do, how serious should humans be concerning zoonosis?

Dr Francis Addy: Well, I would say very, very serious, in recent time, beyond the very old knowledge of zoonosis. We are now in the era of the one health concept. The animal parasites even when they are not zoonotic still have an indirect impact on humans. A typical example is Taenia Solium that I told you I worked on as well as a parasite that affects pigs and humans. It is unfortunate that humans are the final hosts of the parasites, so it is in humans that you have the parasite grow into adults. Oftentimes we target the control in humans because there we can use dewormers to control it however none of the components must be left behind. Researching in one area invariably influences the other area and to set the record straight, I also work on human parasites as well. Presently, I’m working together with a colleague on Plasmodium species causing malaria from a couple of selected health facilities in Northern Ghana.

Osman Abdulai Seidu: I would want to hear your expert opinion. DNA technology is the future! How fast is our evolution towards this revolution as a country?

Dr Francis Addy: Yes. That is quite unfortunate and it derails the efforts of the frontiers in that aspect of science. But I would prefer to advise on what we could be doing instead of folding our arms and blaming the government. As it stands now, there is no sign that any African government is considering setting up any database or even the regional blocks like ECOWAS, the East African and the Southern African. Anyway, if something will come up, maybe the AU, but as you would understand, the AU is something else that you don’t want to discuss. But the whole thing here now is, that there are a couple of databases that are already established in the world. They are assessable to us and we can take advantage of these databases, contribute our data to the database and have equal access to it. And in that regard, my encouragement to scientists in the biological field, in particular, is we should endeavour to up our game to generate quality data that we can deposit, or we can archive for the future because it is obvious that if you go to genebank today, the number of sequences that are coming from Sub-Saharan Africa are so few and the question is why? People are researching, it isn’t that they’re not researching, but they are stopping short at sequencing the various biological agents that they keep describing. So they do morphological characterization and they walk away. So my plea to fellow scientists is that we should in the right direction because it is when we build quality data that we can later fall on that quality data to make inferences. We are in an era where policy and practices are influenced by evidence of data. Scientific evidence is influencing policies and practices. We have to come to the point where for instance, in the health sector, WHO doesn’t have to dictate to us all the time, No! we need relevant local quality data and not data that they’re just collating. If we keep doing so, we will keep having things like rapid diagnostic kits that don’t work because we don’t know the diversity of the plasmodium species that are infecting people in our locality. So we bring a rapid test kit from Latin America that doesn’t target a variant of the plasmodium species in your locality and then we misdiagnose the person. Eventually, the person dies and then people will be saying that he died of malaria, but this malaria induced death could’ve been prevented if only we understood a little bit more. So those are the dynamics. We are at a point where our data and laboratory analysis must be in-depth. We must shun the importation of technology and create technologies here. Build dependable, usable, comprehensive data that would influence policy and practices in the various areas of our sector that will impact our livelihood.

Dr Francis Addy: So as it stands, it is clear now that everyone should know that we need a national effort to make DNA technologies readily available in almost every institution that has something to do with biology. If nothing at all, covid has taught us well enough. I appreciated that when Covid broke out if we were not having Noguchi with the capacity, where would we have been doing the testing.

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