Innovation in the UAE’s precision treatment lab
It’s possible that the cure for diabetes or cancer might be discovered here in the UAE. A team of researchers at the country’s first medical research centre, the Thumbay Institute of Precision Medicine and Translational Research, are busy exploring ways to combat the two diseases.
The Dh20 million centre, which opened in March, is located at Gulf Medical University, a private medical college established in Ajman in 1998.
Researchers at the institute’s laboratories are applying the latest technology in the realms of genetics, next generation sequencing (NGS), 3D tissue printing, health robotics, stem cell research and more in an attempt to solve some of the UAE’s most pressing health issues.
The 40,000 square foot institute specialises in “precision medicine”, which enables medical decisions, practices and products to be customised to the individual patient.
“Researchers are working on tailoring the treatment protocol for each patient according to their genetic footprint, lifestyle and environment,” says Dr Palat K Menon, the centre’s director and the university’s professor of research. For example, the new institute contains the latest technology for testing allergies, using precision medicine to ensure the treatment is tailored to the patient. Research published in the World Allergy Organisation Journal in 2014 revealed symptoms of allergic rhinitis were present in 7 per cent of people in the UAE.
“Where I used to practice in India, allergies were predominantly of the pollen-induced type, whereas here in the UAE, most allergies are caused by indoor allergens like house dust and dust mites,” says Dr Menon. “We’ve been able to give patients an accurate diagnosis for exactly which types of allergy they have, so we can provide exactly the right treatment.”
The institute is also a hub for genetic engineering, with researchers conducting DNA testing and starting to build up a small stem cell bank. “We’re planning to use the stems cells to do very interesting studies in the new animal research facility we’ve established,” says Dr Menon. “That’s where we will be harvesting organs like the heart and the kidney. Usually, the tests are done with small animals like mice and rats. We plan to harvest organs from these animals and remove their cells, in a way that the scaffolding of the organs stays behind, and we then repopulate it with stem cells. We’re hoping in this way to regenerate organs, at least experimentally, to provide models for the future.”
Dr Menon claims that research at the centre will be tightly monitored to ensure safety. “Most of the research is done inside the test tube. Protocol is very important, and we have to follow all the rules. We make sure that the benefit to humanity is always there.”
One of the centre’s biggest projects is in 3D tissue printing. “We’re trying to develop a 3D print model of the affected part of the human body, using MRI and CAT scans, so the surgeon or physician can look at the patient and understand the complexity of the problem they’re dealing with,” says Dr Menon.
Two other institutes on the university site, the Thumbay Institute of Population Health and the Thumbay Institute of Healthcare Workforce Development and Leadership, are in the advanced phase of development, and a 400-bed smart facility teaching hospital, a dental hospital and a physical therapy and rehabilitation centre are also being built at the campus. The hospital will be the biggest private academic hospital in the region, with more than 120 clinics and a unique-to-the-region robotic pharmacy.
But soon, the Thumbay Institute won’t be the only medical research centre in the UAE. Later this year, the Dh100 million Al Jalila Foundation Research Centre will open in Dubai Healthcare City. It will target research into five of the region’s most pressing health challenges – cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity and mental health.
The UAE’s healthcare market is projected to reach US$19.5 billion (Dh71.56 billion) by 2020, achieving an annual average growth of 12.7 per cent according to Alpen Capital’s GCC Healthcare Industry report released in February.
“I believe this is the golden age of health care and the progress we will witness in the healthcare industry in the next 10 years will be much more than that witnessed in the last 100 years,” says Dr Shamsheer Vayalil, the Abu Dhabi-based chairman and managing director of VPS Healthcare, an operator of hospitals and health care centres.
Mr Vayalil says several home-grown start-ups service the healthcare industry, with mobile health, IT, digital hospitals, digital therapeutics, analytics and 3D printing being prevalent forms of digital health activity. “The healthcare industry is very risk averse, but it is also overdue for disruption,” he says.
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Updated: May 15, 2017 04:00 AM