x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

More money needed for research, doctor says

The UAE should commit a percentage of its GDP to medical research projects, a prominent physician and scientist has urged.

Dr Elias Zerhouni, left, an advisor to Johns Hopkins Medicine, presented a lecture on how a
Dr Elias Zerhouni, left, an advisor to Johns Hopkins Medicine, presented a lecture on how a "capital-rich country" such as the UAE could become a global leader in medical and scientific research. He is shown with lecture host Dr Omniyat Mohamed Al Hajeri of Health Authority Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // The UAE should commit a percentage of its GDP to medical research projects, a prominent physician and scientist has urged. Dr Elias Zerhouni, a senior fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and senior adviser to Johns Hopkins Medicine, said the country should focus on specific fields and avoid imitating research being done elsewhere.

"Create a world-class research and development university and healthcare system. Do not emulate systems in other countries, but develop your own approach," said Dr Zerhouni, speaking at the Ramadan majlis of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. "Nurture strong interdisciplinary links across the sciences, and between government, academia and industry," the doctor said. "And commit a percentage of GDP every year to research and development."

Dr Zerhouni is the former director of the US National Institute of Health, which funds research in the US and around the globe from an annual budget of US$30 billion (Dh110bn). He was the guest speaker on Wednesday night at the second in a series of scholarly presentations scheduled for Ramadan at the majlis of Sheikh Mohammed. His lecture entitled "Trends in Science and Health Opportunities and Challenges", offered insight into how the UAE could become a global leader in medical and scientific research.

Health care accounts for about 10 per cent of the global GDP, which translates to $7 trillion over 10 years. Chronic diseases account for 75 per cent of this cost, Dr Zerhouni said. Chronic diseases, including diabetes, are modern diseases mainly due to an ageing population and sedentary, unhealthy lifestyles. The UAE has the second highest rate of diabetes in the world, and a rising rate of child obesity.

The best way for the country to be on the cutting edge of healthcare research is to develop a capital-intensive system, invest in biotechnological research and collaborate across the sciences, he said. Dr Zerhouni shared his research in developing and using biotechnology in medicine. He told how radio wave imaging technology and high-powered computers were used to create a non-invasive diagnostic tool that finally helped diagnose a young woman who was losing her toes to gangrene without any obvious reason.

"One after the other, her toes would turn blue and become gangrenous and had to be amputated," said Dr Zerhouni. "And no one could find a diagnosis." With dynamic imaging technology, a medical team was able to "go inside the body like a submarine", and discovered scar tissue affecting her blood circulation. The problematic scar tissue was removed and the patient was cured. This particular technology had similar success in other cases, including a man with advanced symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

These are examples of advances in biotechnology that a capital-rich country such as the UAE can pioneer, Dr Zerhouni said. "Every country has a seed of genius," he said. "But does it have water and soil to nurture the seed? "The UAE should invest in capital-intensive emerging technology, and encourage local business ventures through acquisition and integration." Dr Zerhouni offered lessons from the history of health care and the expensive way it is approached today in the US.

In the US the cost of health care is about 18 per cent of GDP, an amount that will double by the year 2016, mostly because of chronic diseases. Twenty per cent of the population is responsible for 80 per cent of the cost. Shifting resources from curing chronic diseases to preventing them is key to managing health care costs and improving quality of life. "Did you know that if every tall building forced people to climb stairs for the first three storeys before accessing an elevator, we'd cut obesity by 25 per cent?" he said.

"New cities should be built with a healthy lifestyle in mind, making walking an essential part of everyday life." A preventive approach has already worked well for decreasing mortality associated with heart disease. "It fell by 70 per cent over the past 30 years, because we've been trying prevention," he said. "We identified factors like smoking, obesity and cholesterol that contribute to heart disease, and focused on decreasing those."

The next cutting edge in preventive medicine is to predict who is at risk based on genetic make-up. Stem cell research should also start bearing fruit in the next decade or so, he added. These fields of study are open for investing resources and developing research. "There is no greater risk in science and technology then to stop taking risks," he said. relass@thenational.ae