UACC's Kittles Breaks New Ground in Genetics

Thursday, February 25, 2016

By Nick Prevenas, University Relations - Communications

Ever since he can remember, Rick Kittles always wanted to know where he came from.

Born in Sylvania, Georgia, and raised near Long Island, New York, a great deal of his academic interest was sparked by the desire to trace his ancestral lineage as far back as it could go. This proved to be exceedingly difficult, for a number of reasons.

"There simply wasn't a strong database in place or any kind of access to information on African genetics," Kittles said. "Records were either inaccurate or nonexistent, so there were a number of hurdles in place for African-Americans to try to figure out their ancestry."

An aptitude for biology, coupled with a deep exploration of Alex Haley's novel, "Roots," led Kittles on a path that eventually would help thousands of people like him clear these hurdles. He is the director of the Division of Population Genetics at the University of Arizona, which he joined in July 2014.

Developing and implementing a comprehensive African genealogy database seemed daunting at first, but during his graduate studies at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and, later, though his work at Howard University's College of Medicine in the late 1990s, Kittles met the historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and fellow geneticists who could help turn this dream into a reality.

"I was looking at my own DNA profile, analyzing my Y-chromosome lineage, and I noticed my Nigerian lineage didn't track with the other Y-chromosome samples from West Africa," Kittles said.

"I couldn't figure out why mine looked different. Then, I remembered a story my father told me when I must've been in junior high. He said we had this white great, great — lots of greats — grandfather. That's when everything clicked."

In fact, Kittles said, roughly 40 percent of black men he tests show Y-chromosome similarities to those with European lineage, pointing out that certain European countries had different rules of engagement for enslaved Africans.

"In New Orleans, many of the French settlers had a lot of children of mixed ancestry with enslaved women, as it was more acceptable culturally," Kittles said. "But in the British-occupied areas near the Carolinas, it was not as socially acceptable."

Genetic testing also showed which European powers controlled various colonial areas, and which African nationals generally ended up in these territories. In the Virginia area, for example, many African-Americans can trace their lineages back to Ghana. In South Carolina, a major rice producer in the pre-Civil War era, enslaved Africans usually came from the rice-rich areas of Senegal and Sierra Leone.

"These early discoveries were some of the most incredible experiences of my life," Kittles said. "I knew we were on the verge of something with enormous potential."

Kittles turned that potential into a company, African Ancestry Inc.

Founded in 2003 by Kittles and Gina Paige, African Ancestry set out to scientifically determine an individual's African descent with unparalleled detail and accuracy. Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman and Maya Angelou are just a few of the more than 150,000 people who have consulted African Ancestry to discover their families' country of origin.

As interest in Kittles' database grew, so too did the breadth and depth of his medical research. He was able to show that the genetic variations among African-Americans as it relates to their ancestry plays a role in diagnosing and treating certain diseases.

"There is definitely an intersection in what we know about genetics and ancestry and our understanding about how that relates to health," Kittles said. "We can now use that understanding to better understand drug response and disease risk."

This is of particular importance for populations that face health disparities, as Kittles is often seeking to discover whether a disease affects a specific population because of environmental or genetic reasons.

"As opposed to the classic race models traditionally used in medical research, we're constantly pushing toward better models to more accurately evaluate diagnostic and therapeutic options," Kittles said.

The keys to unlocking these potential breakthroughs may lie in centuries-old pieces of information waiting to be discovered. To quote author James Baldwin: "Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go."

As part of Black History Month, UANews has been highlighting the work of African-Americans at the University who are blazing new trails of influence.