x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Young Emirati leads the way on research

A PhD student is using the latest technology to identify the genes responsible for diabetes in local populations, particularly the Bedouin.

Habiba al Safar at work researching diabetes at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory.
Habiba al Safar at work researching diabetes at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory.

DUBAI // For Habiba al Safar, an Emirati gene research expert, the advanced facilities at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL) in Dubai have proved a vital resource in the battle against diabetes.

The laboratory was one of the first in the Middle East to get a US$2.5 million (Dh9m) Illumina Microarray machine, described as a "high-throughput DNA array instrument". The machine allows scientists to rapidly study the DNA sequences of hundreds of thousands of genes. That makes identifying genes that cause illnesses such as diabetes, Ms al Safar's area of expertise, easier although by no means simple.

"To uncover a gene that causes disease among the thousands is an overwhelming task," she said. Using the machine, Ms al Safar 32, has developed ways of identifying the genes that cause diseases including diabetes in local populations, in particular among the Bedouin community. Locating a gene that causes a disease centres on identifying the DNA profile of those who have that illness (patients) and comparing them with those who do not (controls). This is done using the Illumina machine.

The identification of such genes can lead to improved prognosis and can be used to predict the complications a patient may develop. Finding the genetic cause of diabetes would reap significant rewards. Emiratis have the second highest incidence of the disease in the world. Being able to customise treatment strategies according to the genes carried by patients would also help reduce the cost of treating diabetes and its impact on the health care system, Ms al Safar said.

"The types of genes found in a patient could allow clinicians to make predictions on the likelihood of a child or adult developing diabetes. Therefore, the individual can make specific changes to their lifestyle to manage the disease. "For example, they will know to watch what they eat, exercise more and so on," she added. Ms al Safar's research at the CVRL also enabled her to develop the Emirates Family Registry of about 23,000 people, some 2,600 of whom were Bedouins. Diabetes is particularly prevalent among Bedouins.

So far a random selection of 200 Bedouin volunteers have had their DNA analysed, or "genotyped". "Using this state-of-the-art technology, we have studied 670,000 genetic variations in each of the 200 individuals," said Ms al Safar. She received extensive training on the use of the technology and associated analytical tools that took her to centres in the UK, the United States, Singapore and Canada. Through her travels, she developed collaborative research relationships in the Middle East, Australia, the UK and North America.

Ms al Safar is currently studying diabetes as part of her Phd at the University of Western Australia. Previously, she worked in the forensic science unit of Dubai Police, which has supported her through a scholarship to study in Australia. The Emirates Foundation provided funding. Peter Cleaves, the chief executive of the foundation, said Ms al Safar's research was of "enormous validity" for the UAE.

"In funding a PhD student, we cannot know for sure the investment will pay off. Virtually all will be knowledge creators, and some will be part of major breakthroughs." A separate but related research project at the CVRL focused on DNA profiling for forensic science, particular DNA markers found in the Bedouin population. These were compared with those among Caucasian, African and Oriental populations. The results supported the historical view that the Middle East was a trading hub between the East and the West.

"Although this is of historical interest, the genetic similarities can give important clues when examining the genetic make-up of a population in terms of the best ways to treat medical conditions," said Ms al Safar. The CVRL was founded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, in 1985 and operates as a Government diagnostic centre. The laboratory was established to develop a local centre of excellence in DNA analysis.

Since then, it has undertaken a range of research and diagnostic projects involving horses and camels as well as humans. It also plays a vital role in Dubai's testing and surveillance network designed to combat any future swine flu outbreaks. Dr Kamal Khazanehdari, the head of molecular biology and genetics at the CVRL, said the advancement of Emirati genetic research was a key function of the centre.

"We've diversified recently and opened our doors to people like Habiba so we can offer our support." mswan@thenational.ae