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By 
Tshaka Cunningham
 on February 06, 2024

Loving Our Neighbors by Knowing Our Genomes

For molecular biologist Tshaka Cunningham, faith compels him and science equips him in his work to increase the representation of people of color in genomic research.

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In Psalms 139:14 the psalmist proclaims, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” As a molecular biologist, this scripture resonates strongly with me. When I consider all the wonderful things that had to come together in order to bring about and shepherd my existence on this planet, I am driven to deep praise like the psalmist.

It is hard to believe that 50 years have passed since the genomic DNA that is in me first came into being. My parents met and got together in Washington DC in the Spring of 1973. By the time my Mom and Dad’s genes were colliding on the metaphase plane to make the curious Homo sapien that would one day become me, our country had been through the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement. Also, America was less than a decade into legally establishing equal rights for all citizens through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As a growing blastocyst (fertilized embryo), I had no idea about the intricacies and racial dynamics of the world I was being born into. I had absolutely no comprehension of how my genetic background, specifically my African ancestry and heritage, would impact my experience as an American citizen. My genetics, similar to other factual things about myself like who my biological parents are and the city in which I was born, are things that I cannot change. Nonetheless, they have a major impact on my life, health, and well-being.

My genetics, similar to other factual things about myself like who my biological parents are and the city in which I was born, are things that I cannot change. Nonetheless, they have a major impact on my life, health, and well-being.

Of all my unchangeable traits, my genes are of the most importance to me. This is because I pass them on to my children, and they will impact their life, health, and well-being as well. So why would I not want to understand them as much as possible?

Luckily for me, I was born in time to take advantage of the genome era in which we are all now living. I’m thankful that I was born after the discovery of DNA as the molecule of genetic inheritance, the uncovering of its magical double helical structure, and the advent of the field of molecular biology. Molecular biology enabled the sequencing of the human genome and gave us the tools to interrogate our genome in ways we could’ve never imagined.

This amazing confluence of historical events has created a tremendous opportunity for us to benefit from our country’s investments in biomedical research and scientific discovery. While we more often hear about the benefits for our society as a whole, it can also empower us as individuals. Personal genetics allows us to understand ourselves better and the impact that the specific mutations in our own unique genetic code (collection of A, T, C, and G nucleotides) can have on our health and risk for disease.

Personal Genetics for All

While personal genetics has the potential to benefit everyone, I see a tremendous disconnect between genomic technologies and equal accessibility for all communities. For example, if you look at the standard publically available cancer genomic database, it is very heavily homogenously Caucasian. The U.S. population is not this way. As an African-American scientist, it makes me sad that we know so little about my own people’s ancestry and genetic history. As medicine gets more precise and based on individual genetics, I foresee a future where we all will have to become genomically literate.

I feel compelled to do what I can to help prepare communities that are underrepresented in genomic research for such a future. It’s a knowledge that we cannot afford to lack. It’s the knowledge of who we are, where we came from, and what our health future is. The more marginalized communities are represented in scientific and medical research, particularly in genomics research, the more potential there is for our communities to benefit. My goal is to encourage more people of color to get their genomes sequenced.

Doctor holding patient's hand in health care setting

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

I feel compelled to do what I can to help prepare communities that are underrepresented in genomic research…It’s a knowledge that we cannot afford to lack. It’s the knowledge of who we are, where we came from, and what our health future is.

Tshaka Cunningham

As a messenger, I admit that this is not always an easy task. I remember approaching my own Grandmother who was diagnosed with cancer about getting her genome sequenced so that other family members would be able to ascertain their risks. My Grandmother was a scientist who had done cancer research, and yet she was very apprehensive about doing it. She ended up doing it in the end, but the important message here is that my Grandmother was a Black woman first and foremost even before her identity as a scientist. She knew of people who had been impacted by the US Public Health Study in Tuskegee, AL which started in 1932. Robust distrust of the medical establishment was real for her and understandably remains very real for many people of color today.

Loving Our Neighbors

I have a heart to help communities of color. My faith compels me, and my background in science equips me. I often give talks at churches in my community, using Scripture to help contextualize the science. Scriptures like Hosea 4:5, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” and the passage from Psalms 139 I started this article with work very well. One of my favorites however is Matthew 22:39, “…love thy neighbor as thyself.” I often reframe this passage in a relevant way: “Know thy genome, know thyself, help thy neighbor’s better health.” Knowing our own selves better with the help of personal genetics can serve the greater good of our families, our communities, and future generations. It truly is an extension of Christ’s call to love our neighbors.

The Church is a great place to start this work, but there is still a lot of work to be done beyond the walls of the Church. In a present-day society where we are erasing parts of our history and reframing how we tell it—often at the expense of excluding the voices of the marginalized—we cannot stand still. The world needs to learn more about our complete history, and the impact that our diverse ancestors have had on shaping a better world for all. And we as a pluralistic multi-racial society need to learn more about the diversity of our DNA. Thanks to cutting-edge research programs like the NIH’s “All of Us Program,” we now have an opportunity to gain knowledge about African American genomes, as well as all other genomes represented within our citizenry, to improve our collective health outcomes.

As we continue to celebrate 70+ years since the double helical structure of DNA was discovered, and the 25+ years since next-generation genomic sequencing has been available commercially, I’m encouraging all of my fellow citizens, especially those like me with African ancestry to participate in genomics research studies right now! Black lives matter. Indeed, Black genomes matter! We owe it to ourselves and to our neighbors to find out more about our personal genetics through programs like NIH “All of Us,” which have the potential to improve health outcomes for everyone.

Knowing our own selves better with the help of personal genetics can serve the greater good of our families, our communities, and future generations. It truly is an extension of Christ’s call to love our neighbors.

About the author

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Tshaka Cunningham

Dr. Tshaka Cunningham, a graduate of Princeton University, received his PhD in molecular biology from Rockefeller University & completed his postdoctoral training at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France and at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. He previously worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs overseeing a federally funded national research program in aging & neurodegenerative disease and serving as a subject matter expert for the VA’s Genomic Medicine Implementation Program. Motivated by the timely need for advancements in diversity and inclusion in precision medicine while at the VA, Dr. Cunningham co-founded and serves as the Executive Director of the Faith-Based Genetic Research Institute, a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to improving people’s lives through the power of genomics and precision medicine. A leading voice in advocating for diversity & representation in the field of genomics, Dr. Cunningham also serves as a board member of the Future Kings STEM biomedical training program, a STEM-focused non-profit organization for youth from underserved minority communities in the DC-area. Dr. Cunningham also serves on the Advisory Council for the STEMM Opportunity Alliance, a national initiative to ensure STEMM equity launched in December 2022 led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in collaboration with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Doris Duke Charitable Fund (DDCF). Polaris Genomics website: https://polarisgenomics.com/