SHARJAH // Chemical compounds that could combat the cells responsible for Alzheimer's disease and breast cancer have been discovered in a groundbreaking research project by local academic institutions.
Two separate three-year studies conducted by the University of Sharjah, the Sharjah Medical Research Institute and the Sharjah Academy for Scientific Research have found 15 compounds that have the potential to fight cells that cause Alzheimer's and three compounds that could combat cells responsible for the progression of breast cancer.
The results have been picked up by international medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, and the university has been approached by pharmaceutical companies and medical organisations, including the Inserm institute in Paris.
Professor Samy Mahmoud, chancellor of the University of Sharjah, described the initial findings as a "significant step forward" in medical research, and said the goal will be "transferring technology into industry".
"But by no means is it the final step," he said. "We indeed have a long way to go. The next stage is to synthesize the medical material from these compounds and apply it to clinical experiments on animals and human beings, and in that respect we have made strong affiliations and legal agreements with a number of world class organisations."
Dr Taleb Al Tel, the associate professor of organic medicinal chemistry at the university, said it could take between seven and 12 years to develop a drug and make it available for human consumption.
The research methodology, which was similar across both studies, involves identifying the enzymes that cause both diseases, then using a sophisticated computer program to test the potential success of chemical compounds.
Based on theoretical results from the computer simulation, the compounds are then synthesized and tested in the laboratory against cells that have a high concentration of these enzymes.
However, as the compounds progress from laboratory to clinical trials, there are a number of obstacles that researchers must be prepared for, particularly when it comes to a disease like Alzheimer's, which is yet to have a cure.
"Although the disease was discovered in 1906, its pathology was only understood in the '90s," Dr Al Tel said. "And since then, most of the drug discovery companies and institutions around the world are facing this challenge."
Insufficient data on the prevalence of Alzheimer's as well as misdiagnosis are some of the challenges faced in the UAE, said Prof Hossam Hamdy, vice chancellor of medical and health sciences colleges at the university.
"Part of the confusion is between Alzheimer's and senile dementia, which can naturally occurs in old age," he said. "However, Alzheimer's has its specific psychological and physiological tests and kicks in at an earlier age."
Experts estimate that the rate in the UAE is similar to other countries. Figures from the Alzheimer's Association in the United States show that one in eight people aged 65 and older, and nearly half of people over 85, have the disease.
"There's no reason to believe there's vast variations between one country or another," Prof Hamdy said. "It's just that the statistics in some countries are more accurate and have been gathered correctly … but like everything else, the UAE is making tremendous steps to identify, diagnose and classify different prevalent disease."
Parallel to the Alzheimer's study was research conducted on breast cancer cells. About 110 chemical compounds were tested against melanoma and breast cancer cells, of which three were found to have significant potential in combating the cells responsible for breast cancer.
Referring to a 2008 study by Tawam Hospital, UAE University and the Department of Preventative Medicine in Al Ain, Raafat El Awady, associate professor of pharmacology at the University of Sharjah, said there is now strong evidence that cancer is the leading cause of death in the UAE.
"Previously, it was thought to come third after cardiovascular disease and traffic accidents," he said. "This confusion was mainly because when the patient's heart would stop, physicians would write on the death certificate that the cause of death was cardiac arrest, when in fact it was not."
Both projects are now at the pre-clinical phase, and Inserm will provide the university with up to 3,000 cancer cell lines for testing.
The process of drug discovery, starting with forming compounds in the organic chemistry labs and ending with clinical trials on patients, usually costs between US$800 million (Dh2.9 billion) and $1.5bn.
However, the academics' efforts are not thwarted by cost because of support from the Sharjah government, which founded, funded and provided the infrastructure for the three institutions.