x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Where research and development begin

The region needs more research centres to address the rise in diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

Dr Ajay Singh's call for more medical research centres in the region this week was welcome, though he is not the first to press the point. Speaking in Dubai, the associate professor at Harvard Medical School stressed the importance of these centres because of the "increasing recognition of how important some problems are, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease".

Several of these institutes exist, such as Imperial College of London's centre in Abu Dhabi, established in 2006 to study and treat diabetes. But there is certainly room for other state-of-the-art facilities of its kind.

Dr Singh's remarks also point to a larger imperative: as the UAE seeks to diversify its economy, its capacity for research and development will become increasingly important. As it develops this capacity, it is likely to find niche areas to target investment. That is the shortest road to profitability and solutions for local and regional needs.

For its part, the Centre for Arab Genomics has shown how to lay the foundation for such an effort. Since October 2006, the centre has developed a database that includes more than 200 genetic diseases that afflict Arabs in the UAE. Its studies have provided a wealth of information on the incidence of Downs Syndrome, breast cancer and leukaemia, as well as several other conditions that have strong genetic links.

Many of the genetic disorders that afflict local populations are also common throughout the region. Gathering this information, however, is just the beginning; the next stage is to use the research to tailor treatments and prevention strategies. This is the same process in any attempt to bring research to a practical conclusion.

Research into photovoltaic cells that more efficiently harness the sun's energy, as Masdar Institute is doing, or into smaller and faster microchips, as investments into Advanced Micro Devices has undertaken, requires a common foundation. To enable these efforts to bear fruit and provide jobs for Emiratis, the educational system has to prepare graduates before they enter the workforce.

In his remarks in Dubai this week, Dr Singh was right to make this connection, calling for improved educational links between medical institutions in the UAE and those with a proven track record elsewhere. Indeed, for the health of the UAE's economy and its population, developing these partnerships is paramount.