Biomedical research in the Middle East received a significant boost when Qatar announced June 22nd that it will launch the region's first bank devoted to genetic research.
The unprecedented plan is a joint initiative between the Hamad Medical Corporation, the Qatar Foundation, and Imperial College of London, officials said.
According to Dr. Mohammed Fathy Saoud, president of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, the bank's mission is to support pioneering genetic research in the Middle East. During a foundation symposium celebrating the bank's launch, Saoud discussed the importance of genetic research with Al-Shorfa.
"The discovery of the human genome at the beginning of the 21st century led to the recognition of the importance of having a research entity in every developed society to collect all the genetic data of its members, because this allows researchers to tackle diseases on an individual basis, and not just predict the diseases," Saoud said.
He said modern medicine is personalised and depends upon genetic data. "Treatment and prevention of disease are applied on an individual basis and not the community as a whole," he said.
Biobank Qatar will collect samples from volunteer donors and analyse the specimens to establish a groundwork of research on common diseases prevalent among Qatari citizens and individuals in the region, particularly diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and diseases associated with aging.
The bank is scheduled to start its initial work within a year. Immediate efforts will focus on raising awareness and encouraging citizens and residents to volunteer in the program.
Dr. Hanan al-Kuwari, board chairman of the bank and the director of Hamad Medical Corporation, said the facility would take samples from 20,000 Qatari and Arab resident volunteers. "There is no research centre focusing on the health of the Arab community. Most disease and research centres focus on Western societies," she said.
"Thereafter, we will focus on taking detailed pictures of diseases in the Arab community, taking into consideration that the genes of Arab citizens differ from the genes of Westerners. Medicines that benefit Westerners are not necessarily beneficial for treatment of Arab patients," al-Kuwari said. "We will thus be able to develop drugs that benefit the Arab population."
Dr. Eman al-Sadoun, from the Supreme Council of Health, said Qatar plans to enact a law to protect individuals involved in research and ensure a sufficient degree of transparency regarding research methods.
"The Council will develop policies to regulate the ethics of research, most importantly the protection of individuals and policies dealing with animal laboratories and principles relating to stem cells and the process of gene transfer. All of the procedures will allow for research activity to be conducted successfully, ethically, and in accordance with national and international laws," al-Sadoun said.
The concept of biobanks is still vague to many Qataris. Ahmed al-Qahtani, a Qatari university student, told Al-Shorfa that Qatari society still lags far behind such cultures, and it may take time for the bank to find volunteers to participate in its research.
"I have some knowledge about biobanks from news reports, but the majority of society lacks such knowledge. The individuals managing the bank need to begin an education campaign if they want the public to respond to them," al-Qahtani said.
He admitted that though Qatar might have in the past lagged behind in biomedical research, he believes the biobank is necessary for the country and the region.
"People in the Arabian Gulf need to keep up with developments in all fields, especially in the field of medicine."