DUBAI // A link has been found for the first time between the genetic make-up of the Bedouin people of the UAE and Type 2 diabetes, according to research.
Researchers say they hope the findings could help the region in its fight against the disease.
Dr Habiba Sayeed Alsafar, an Emirati, conducted the research as part of a PhD Fellowship Programme at the University of Western Australia.
The Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy funded the research.
"The Emirates Foundation's support for the research element of the PhD has helped me realise a dream," Dr Alsafar said.
In her research, she discovered an association between Type 2 diabetes and five genes that are distinctive to the UAE population. This is the first Genome Wide Association Study of the UAE Bedouin population, which has revealed genes that cause Type 2 diabetes, specifically in the Emirati population.
The strongest link between the genes and the disease was within the PRKD1 gene, which plays an important role in insulin secretion.
“There are a couple of diseases that are caused by one gene, but Diabetes Type 2 is caused by multiple genes. In the African, Asian and Caucasian populations, they have identified about 20 genes associated with Type 2 diabetes, but this is the first study on the Arab population,” Dr Alsafar said.
Other doctors have supported the concepts that Dr Alsafar’s research has brought to light.
“I think she is on the right path and she is doing an excellent job,” said Dr Mahmoud Taleb Al Ali, the director of the Centre of Arabic Genomic Studies in Dubai. “This is the way to go forth ... there are lots of studies done on different populations, but as far as this kind of population it is unknown. She is doing an excellent job in identifying the gene locations.”
Dr Al Ali explained that the research should be expanded to a bigger population size, and that the centre is doing a similar study with a larger focus – not just diabetes.
He said the centre would be able to use Dr Alsafar’s research as grounds for comparison.
The new research also underscores scepticism about a UK study that shows that a low-calorie diet can cure diabetes.
Dr Ghassan Darwiche, an internist/diabetologist and chief medical officer at Rashid Centre for Diabetes and Research, last week said that diabetes was “a progressive disease based on genetics and a sedentary lifestyle”.
He had explained that beta cells, which make and release insulin, a hormone that controls the level of glucose in blood, are reduced in the early stages of the disease.
The UAE has the second-highest level of diabetes in the world, with a rate of 19.5 per cent, according to the International Diabetes Federation. About 288,000 people in the country have been diagnosed with the Type 2 form of the disease, and according to a study by healthcare provider United Health Group, the total could rise to 440,000 by 2020.
Diabetes increases a person’s risk of heart attack, kidney failure, blindness and some infections.
“As we all know, the UAE has a high prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes, which is a multifactorial disease ... there are environmental factors, lifestyle and diet as well as genetics,” she said.
An understanding of the genetic diversity in the region will provide a deep insight into the mechanisms that cause the disease, Dr Alsafar said.
“This could lead to better intervention and prevention programmes that improve the quality of life throughout the Arab world,” she said.
The researcher added that she hopes this type of scientific study could extend to other diseases that affect the population, such as cardiovascular disorders.
“I am applying for grants as I would like to look at cardiovascular disease and asthma in the UAE population ... we are a relatively unstudied region, so we have to study our population,” she said.
As part of her research, Dr Alsafar established the Emirates Family Registry. A pilot project was launched in 2008 with volunteers from three local hospitals and nine primary healthcare centres taking part.
The clinical data of 23,000 volunteers was stored in the registry.
“When I started my project, I could not find a registry that linked all the emirates together,” she said. “I interviewed one family that had 319 members from across six generations and among them were 66 diabetics, so there is a predisposed gene for Type 2 diabetes in the family.
“In addition, eight members did not know that they were diabetic and we diagnosed them during screening, while others were in the high-risk category and we gave them advice.”
Dr Alsafar, who completed her undergraduate studies in biochemistry from San Diego State University and her Master’s in medical engineering from Liverpool University in England, said she would like to see more funds go towards science research so that different diseases can be studied across the Arab populations.
With the completion of Phase 1 of the Emirates Family Registry, the project was likely to expand to other GCC countries, she said.
“It took me four years to do the research. It is better for people to be informed before they get diabetes, because we can prevent it,” said Dr Alsafar.
The findings have been presented as a series of six manuscripts and published in scientific journals, including the International Journal of Diabetes and Metabolism and Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology.
“I prepared my research in six manuscripts which were submitted to various journals and some of them are still under review,” explained Dr Alsafar, who completed her doctorate last May.
Dr Alsafar is the second Emirati scholar to complete the programme. She said the project, which took four years, required specialised training to obtain testing samples and conduct the necessary experiments.
Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the Emirates Foundation’s managing director, said: “This can only affirm our belief in the creative potential of young Emiratis and the necessity to give them the opportunity to unleash their potential.”