The Emirati Genome Program: A Gamechanger For Healthcare In The UAE

Insights from a webinar that was staged by Entrepreneur Middle East in collaboration with the Emirates Health Services Authority in February this year to mark the 2022 edition of UAE Innovates.

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In what is expected to be a gamechanger for healthcare in the UAE, the country's citizens will soon be getting access to cutting-edge genomic testing, which will allow them to receive early diagnoses of rare and previously incurable genetic diseases. And according to UAE Genome Office Director Fatima Al Kaabi, this prospect is the result of a vision that was laid down by the country's leadership, which is now close to becoming a reality.

UAE Genome Office
Fatima Al Kaabi, Director, UAE Genome Office

"The UAE Genomics Council, which was formed in June 2021, really gave the opportunity to provide the country with a roadmap," Al Kaabi said, during a webinar staged by Entrepreneur Middle East in collaboration with the Emirates Health Services Authority in February this year. "And just like the leadership of this country, we believe that healthcare should be delivered to everyone. So, we're pleased to announce that we're at the final stage of having the full development strategy for the program, and it will soon take route to final approval, and will be launched to the public very soon."

Al Kaabi shared her thoughts on the Emirati Genome Program at this online event that was staged to mark the 2022 edition of UAE Innovates, a month-long initiative by the UAE government to celebrate, recognize and foster greater innovation within the country. Besides Al Kaabi, the webinar also featured Professor Eric Xing, President, Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, Levani Sani, co-founder, Nala Genetics, and Dr. Asma Al Mannaei, Executive Director, Research and Innovation Center, Department of Health - Abu Dhabi, sharing their insights over the course of a discussion moderated by Entrepreneur Middle East Managing Editor Tamara Pupic.

A screenshot from the webinar staged by Entrepreneur Middle East.

Pharmacogenomics is the study of how medicinal drugs can affect the human genome, which is the entire genetic makeup of a given person. But given the very nature of genomics (each person does, after all, have a unique set of genes), it is a branch of precision medicine that has shown a gradual momentum in growth over the years, with a 2021 study by Statista projecting the market to grow to nearly US$9 billion by 2028. Commenting on this trend, Dr. Al Mannaei said, "We are witnessing a sudden shift in the healthcare system nowadays with everything moving towards precision and personalized medicine. But it is important for the public to know that the application of precision and personalized medicine is heavily dependent on the genome of the person. But, on our part, we can assure that the implementation of the UAE Genome Strategy has put an effective and safe regulatory framework to ensure that the application and practices of clinical research as well as therapeutics in genomes is made safe and possible for our population."

And this is why the Emirati Genome Program is especially significant. Despite the recent advances in pharmacogenomic research, a majority of the genetic samples used globally are primarily from the US and Europe. In this regard, the Emirati Genome Program is expected to pioneer the way forward for genomic testing in the Middle East. In fact, Al Kaabi emphasized that the UAE continuing to be underrepresented in terms of genomic data has been a huge driving factor in taking this initiative forward. "Most of the data out there is from Europe and the US, so what we are looking for is the 0.01% belt," she said. "So, yes, we're building the UAE Genome Strategy, but in the background we are also building our own Emirati reference genome. Because when we have our own reference, the missing pieces of the puzzle that we are trying to find, that in the future could prove to be potential answers to genetic or metabolic diseases, can be discovered."

Dr. Asma Al Mannaei, Executive Director, Research and Innovation Center, Department of Health - Abu Dhabi. Source: Department of Health - Abu Dhabi.

While pharmacogenomics is a branch of medical science that was first discovered way back in 510 B.C. by Greek philosopher Pythagoras, its applications have obviously gained ground with the advent of technology. Specifically, it is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) that has proven to be a massive catalyst when it comes to analyzing large clinical and biological data sets. "When we talk about genomics and DNA, it is important to know that it is not a self-explanatory book of biological information or genomic messages; it is an enigma," Xing noted. "It is written in four characters: A, T, G, C. So to translate the genome sequences of a population into some information that is actionable, such as structure of a protein or markers and predictors of a disease, you need a translator. So AI is like the modern digital microscope of digital biological information."

Xing also explained how AI can enable the understanding of the mechanism behind a disease, the risk of a particular population, as well as the biophysical consequences of using a particular drug. "When it comes to precision medicine, it requires personalization of all scientific discovery which requires us to further zoom into the granularity of discovery for every individual," he said. "That means we need to have more powerful AI algorithms to be able to give very accurate personalized diagnoses or prognoses. So, here, if we have robots that can assist doctors and nurses as well as the scientists, you can speed up the existing processes and also give the doctors more human energy to do the harder part of the work."

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Professor Eric Xing, President, Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI). Source: MBZUAI

But a big factor behind the greater adoption of pharmacogenomics, its clinical applications, and the greater usage of AI in the field is, in fact, the COVID-19 crisis. According to Sani, the coronavirus pandemic has had a major role in influencing and changing how this particular field of precision medicine is viewed by various stakeholders. "The COVID-19 crisis has certainly changed public perception, but it also brought about a difference in terms of government urgency, and how universities and collaborators came together to see what this technology can bring," she said. "So, it's a very exciting time to be contributing in this industry today."

However, Sani was also quick to point out that the sudden elevated interest in genomics has also brought in its fair share of challenges. "To make things commercial and relevant for patients means that there is now a lot of responsibility on governments to come up with data security policies, hospitals to suddenly have interoperability systems, and for companies to come to the realization that this is something that could benefit their employees," Sani explained. "So it's important to balance all those views. But the excitement in this area lies in the fact that future applications can have genetic testing covered by a lot of insurance companies and make it standard practice, and local guidelines can be issued for different personalized testing in pharmacogenomics. So, I think the possibilities are endless!"

Levani Sani, co-founder, Nala Genetics. Source: Nala Genetics

Dr. Al Mannaei agreed with Sani, saying that the Department of Health in Abu Dhabi is keen on creating an ecosystem to enable the application of clinical genomics within the UAE's healthcare system. "Through this shift, we are moving from the traditional healthcare provider setup to more of an inclusive academia, public-private, collaboration in order to provide the best application of genomic medicine for patients," she added. "So, we are working on this interoperability model and fine-tuning the infrastructure in terms of data sharing, different roles and responsibilities of each of the stakeholders within the wider ecosystem. We believe this is doable. At the same time, we are strengthening the regulatory framework as well by trying to predict what will be the needs of our population, and what governing regulations need to be in place to ensure the fast adoption of new discoveries and breakthroughs within our healthcare system in Abu Dhabi."

In conclusion, Al Kaabi said that she believed the future is bright in terms of the UAE's role in advancing healthcare from a global perspective. "I think it is the right time for the UAE to be pioneering human genomics," she said. "We aim to be the benchmark and set the standard for the industry. And I believe this because of the existing healthcare system we have in place, as well as the vision of the country's leadership."

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