The National Institutes of Health is investing about $74.5 million over five years to advance data science, catalyze innovation and spur health discoveries across Africa. Under its new Harnessing Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa (DS-I Africa) program, the NIH is issuing 19 awards to support research and training activities. DS-I Africa is an NIH Common Fund program that is supported by the Office of the Director and 11 NIH Institutes, Centers and Offices.
Awards will establish a consortium consisting of a data science platform and coordinating center, seven research hubs, seven data science research training programs and four projects focused on studying the ethical, legal and social implications of data science research. Awardees have a robust network of partnerships across the African continent and in the United States, including numerous national health ministries, nongovernmental organizations, corporations, and other academic institutions.
This initiative has generated tremendous enthusiasm in all sectors of Africa’s biomedical research community. Big data and artificial intelligence have the potential to transform the conduct of research across the continent, while investing in research training will help to support Africa’s future data science leaders and ensure sustainable progress in this promising field.”
Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., NIH Director
The University of Cape Town (UCT) will develop and manage the initiative’s open data science platform and coordinating center, building on previous NIH investments in UCT’s data and informatics capabilities made through the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) program. UCT will provide a flexible, scalable platform for the DS-I Africa researchers, so they can find and access data, select tools and workflows, and run analyses through collaborative workspaces. UCT will also administer and support core resources, as well as coordinate consortium activities.
The research hubs, all of which are led by African institutions, will apply novel approaches to data analysis and AI to address critical health issues including:
- Scientists in Kenya will leverage large, existing data sets to develop and validate AI models to identify women at risk for poor pregnancy outcomes; and to identify adolescents and young healthcare workers at risk of depression and suicide ideation.
- A hub in Nigeria will study SARS-CoV-2 and HIV with the goal of using data to improve pandemic preparedness.
- In Uganda, researchers will advance data science for medical imaging with efforts to improve diagnoses of eye disease and cervical cancer.
- Scientists in Nigeria will also study anti-microbial resistance and the dynamics of disease transmission, develop a portable screening tool for bacterial infections and test a potential anti-microbial compound.
- A project based in Cameroon will investigate ways to decrease the burden of injuries and surgical diseases, as well as improve access to quality surgical care across the continent.
- From a hub in South Africa, researchers will study multi-disease morbidity by analyzing clinical and genomic data with the goal of providing actionable insights to reduce disease burden and improve overall health.
- A project in South Africa will develop innovative solutions to mitigate the health impacts of climate change throughout the region, with initial studies of clinical outcomes of heat exposure on pregnant women, newborns and people living in urban areas.
The research training programs, which leverage partnerships with U.S. institutions, will create multi-tiered curricula to build skills in foundational health data science, with options ranging from master’s and doctoral degree tracks, to postdoctoral training and faculty development. A mix of in-person and remote training will be offered to build skills in multi-disciplinary topics such as applied mathematics, biostatistics, epidemiology, clinical informatics, analytics, computational omics, biomedical imaging, machine intelligence, computational paradigms, computer science and engineering. Trainees will receive intensive mentoring and participate in practical internships to learn how to apply data science concepts to medical and public health areas including the social determinants of health, climate change, food systems, infectious diseases, noncommunicable diseases, health surveillance, injuries, pediatrics and parasitology.
Recognizing that data science research may uncover potential ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI), the consortium will include dedicated ELSI research addressing these topics. This will include efforts to develop evidence-based, context specific guidance for the conduct and governance of data science initiatives; evaluate current legal instruments and guidelines to develop new and innovative governance frameworks to support data science health research in Africa; explore legal differences across regions of the continent in the use of data science for health discovery and innovation; and investigate public perceptions and attitudes regarding the use of data science approaches for healthcare along with the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholder groups regarding intellectual property, patents, and commercial use of genomics data in health. In addition, the ELSI research teams will be embedded in the research hubs to provide important and timely guidance.
A second phase of the program is being planned to encourage more researchers to join the consortium, foster the formation of new partnerships and address additional capacity building needs. Through the combined efforts of all its initiatives, DS-I Africa is intended to use data science to develop solutions to the continent’s most pressing public health problems through a robust ecosystem of new partners from academic, government and private sectors.
In addition to the Common Fund (CF), the DS-I Africa awards are being supported by the Fogarty International Center (FIC), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the NIH Office of Data Science Strategy (ODSS). The initiative is being led by the CF, FIC, NIBIB, NIMH and NLM.
National Institutes of Health