UAE among pioneers of a biological frontier

In the Middle East, where the incidence of marriages between people descended from the same ancestors – termed consanguineous – is relatively high, the genetic sector is gaining importance in the medical and educational fields, according to officials and industry insiders.

Diagnostic laboratories and companies providing machines and gene testing kits are at the forefront of this sector in the UAE that is commercialising genetics research, which currently comes out of the universities and research centres worldwide.

About 30 to 40 per cent of marriages in the Middle East are consanguineous varying from one country to another in the region, according to Francisco Rodriguez, the general manager of Spanish company Igenomix UAE. Such marriages may give rise to recessive syndromes in the parents’ children.

“The risk of having an affected child is considerably higher than in another ethnicities and countries,” he says. “We are facing difficult cases with two or three diseases within the family and inherited, with difficult consequences such as affected children and sudden deaths.”

Moreover, about 10 to 15 per cent of the total population in the Middle East is infertile, compared with the worldwide average of 10 per cent, according to Mr Rodriguez. This leads to assisted reproduction techniques and the rise in demand for genetic diagnosis.

Igenomix is one among the growing number of genetic diagnostic laboratories in the UAE.

The genetics industry in this country is built mostly around the companies that provide state-of-the-art machines and devices to conduct genetic tests in hospitals, and the diagnostics segment, that is, laboratories and clinics, for instance, that order and perform genetics tests.

More patients are now able to undergo genetic testing to detect diseases such as cancer, but also more routine daily tests such as for food intolerance.

Biotech companies that develop genetic medicines are yet to begin research and development in the UAE or the wider Arabian Gulf region.

“Once the product is available and the machine [to read the samples] is available, people will be able to use the services and help people make better decisions,” says Marwan Abdulaziz Janahi, the executive director of Dubai Science Park.

Currently, the costs for genetic tests, for example for those relating to reproduction, can run into thousands of dirhams. Once the volume of patients develops further, the costs are expected to come down, he says.

Molecular diagnostics and personalised medicine is a small but a growing segment in the UAE on the back of the demand for fertility treatments, tests for inherited diseases such as thalassaemia, and prenatal testing such non-invasive prenatal testing for Down syndrome, among others.

At Dubai Science Park, where the latest genetic laboratory opened this month, there are about eight companies that provide the technology for genetic testing including Thermo Fisher Scientific, and five genetics laboratories among the 300 or so companies housed at the free zone.

The US biotechnology product development company Thermo Fisher Scientific opened its customer centre in Dubai in April last year. It also trains people on how to use the machines.

“Thermo Fisher Scientific enables its customers to conduct genetics research and clinical research by providing leading technologies, such as next generation sequencing and quantitative polymerase chain reaction platforms,” says Colin McCracken, the vice president and general manager for Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa at Thermo Fisher Scientific in Dubai. “These instruments are widely being used to today, particularly in oncology and infectious disease-related programmes.”

Despite the relative youth of the segment, the genetic diagnostics market is getting crowded in the UAE.

“Now the market is more and more competitive, especially with the new tests such as next-generation sequencing [to study for mutations in specific genes],” says Fady Al Assaly, the spokesman at Alliance Global Group.

Based in Dubai Science Park, Alliance Global Group, which opened in 2006, distributes laboratory machines and diagnostic kits in the local market.

Next-generation sequencing is used to improve success rate at fertility centres, and is also used at hospitals, private labs and veterinary centres.

Igenomix, for instance, performs about 200 prenatal genetic tests a month and the number is growing, according to Mr Rodriguez.

Last year in February, Igenomix opened its seventh office worldwide in Dubai Health Care City to provide reproductive genetic services, such as “carrier” genetic tests to screen for inherited diseases, to the Middle East.

Governments in the Gulf region have been aware of the importance of genetic education and the industry for some time.

In 2003, the Centre for Arab Genomic Studies was set up in Dubai to provide public awareness on genetic diseases in the region and to identify disease-causing genes in the Arab population, among other goals.

Some governments in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have also announced plans to sequence the whole human genome, a project similar to that of the Genomics England, owned by the UK department of health. The UK project, which was announced in 2013, aims to sequence 100,000 whole human genomes.

The Saudi Human Genome Project, also launched in 2013, looks to sequence the DNA, or the building blocks of a human body, for 100,000 Saudis. It was to be funded and organised by the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.

The technology is there to record such data, but the question of what happens to the information and who owns it is critical, Mr Janahi says.

“But the bright side is that it has helped physicians to make better [clinical] decisions,” he adds.

The Saudi programme aims to address the healthcare burden that the country faces from inherited diseases, which affect 8 per cent of births in the country, and the common genetic diseases such as diabetes, which affects more than 20 per cent of the population, through prevention and awareness and personalised therapies, according to the project.

Even though the commercial genetic sector is small in the region, there are a few challenges.

Competition from overseas companies and need for more education and awareness of genetic issues within the UAE are among these, according to Mr McCracken.

The legal issues such as who owns the results of genetic tests, whether it is the insurance companies, the employers, or the individuals themselves, are yet to be clarified in the UAE.

As Mr Janahi says: “It is a complex decision, and we still haven’t reached that level, at this point we are still busy making sure we have the technology, and we use it in certain areas.”

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