Wellcome Connecting Science and H3ABioNet, the Pan African Bioinformatics Network for the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa), have joined hands to help deliver bioinformatics training across Africa. This will also assist scientists tackle some of the continent’s most pressing health challenges.
To be delivered across 16 countries both in person and virtually, the training will provide the participants with skills that will enable them to analyse genetic sequencing data. The data is becoming critical to help address heritable conditions and infectious diseases such as malaria and Covid-19.
In the recent past, next generation sequencing (NGS) has transformed research into human health and disease. Observers said the volume of genetic sequence data generated is growing each year, making it increasingly valuable for scientists to gain the bioinformatics skills required to organise and analyse these data.
The course is targeted at researchers and healthcare professionals and aims to equip the participants with the essential informatics skills needed to begin analysing NGS data and to apply some of the most commonly used tools and resources for sequence data analysis.
According to Professor Nicky Mulder, H3ABioNet principal investigator and head of the Computational Biology Division at the University of Cape Town, the partnership uses a distributed classroom model and a blended learning format. This consists of individual work, virtual contact sessions, online educational resources and technology platforms for delivery of training materials and practical exercises, Mulder explained.
The lectures are delivered by experienced bioinformatics drawn from Africa, Europe and the USA who also develop course materials remotely. Locally, teaching assistants and system administrators support and assist participants in person or via online platforms. The course has attracted well over 2000 applications, of which a record 415 participants were accepted. Learning is taking place in 31 classrooms across 16 countries, with over 100 locally based classroom staff providing assistance.
Mulder said the skills gained during the training will be applied to a wide range of health problems and research areas in Africa, ranging from Covid-19 to rare genetic diseases.
Said Mulder: “The demand for training on NGS data analysis is extremely high, with over 2000 applications for this course alone. The H3ABioNet remote classroom model was an obvious choice to start to address this demand. Attendees should leave with hands-on experience on NGS applied to humans and pathogens, and with access to all the required software to do this at their home institution.” She said the course will also build communities around this topic in regions that are hosting classrooms, adding that they hope this will continue well after the course for longer term support and networking.
H3ABioNet developed this model to help address logistical challenges that Africa often experiences when delivering large-scale bioinformatics training. Wellcome Connecting Science leveraged the long-standing partnership it has with H3AbioNet to tackle the increasing demand for bioinformatics training via regional training networks.
It is widely hoped that the course will provide lasting benefits not only to the participants, but also local institutions and the wider research community in Africa. Experts in the field say the approach to build capacity and training provides an effective and sustainable model for strengthening genomic research. In addition, this also promotes regional networks and communities which are critically in need of genomics skills.
Dr Alice Matimba, overseas courses manager at Wellcome Connecting Science, welcomed the initiative saying this further demonstrates the growing opportunities to strengthen collaborations with their regional partners. Using virtual technologies, we can offer tailored courses to more people, at low cost and with minimal travel, he added, while amplifying the impact and capacity for genomics in Africa.
“We’ve delivered this course to 20 times more people than we usually could, emphasising the need to invest in agile training approaches that have allowed us to continue providing training during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Matimba.