x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Gulf states taking a lead in stem cell research

So far, serious ethical concerns have hindered the industry's development in the West, but Gulf countries are showing more openness.

DOHA // "Countries today are not measured by their wealth," said Dr Fathy Saoud, the president of Qatar Foundation, opening a stem cell forum hosted by Weill Cornell Medical College here on Monday. "They are measured by what they produce, including research and ideas."

Among medical researchers, stem cells are hot. Leading scientists are closing in on breakthroughs and lauding the cells' potential to treat, even cure, some of the world's most serious medical problems, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. "Stem cells have opened new and broad horizons," Mr Saoud said, promoting the foundation's nascent research programmes. "This is a noble purpose and we all have to seek to achieve it."

Stem cells are found in all multicellular organisms and are marked by an ability to differentiate into various cell types. Unlike adult stem cells, stem cells taken from an embryo are completely unspecialised and can develop into any kind of tissue - to treat a variety of ailments or even replace a failing liver or heart, in theory. But the harvesting of such cells destroys the embryo, which some see as a human life. This is why the then-US president George W Bush banned funding for embryonic stem cell research in 2001. Research continued in the UK, Japan, China and France.

The following year, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa declaring the practice consistent with Shia Islam, kick-starting Iranian research. In 2003, Saudi scholars sanctioned the use of embryos for therapeutic and research purposes, further opening the gates for Muslim stem cell research. Turkey, Egypt and Malaysia have since launched stem cell research initiatives. But ethical questions linger. Last July, scientists at the UK's Newcastle University were able to produce sperm from embryonic stem cells. Several scholars, including Hassan Mohammed al Marzouqi, a professor of Sharia at UAE University, denounced the practice as prohibited by Islamic law.

The 2003 fatwa by Saudi Arabia's Fiqh Council of the Muslim World League allowed for the use and growth of stem cells for research if obtained from a permissible source, which includes the placenta or umbilical cord, embryos or foetuses that have been miscarried or aborted for medical reasons and leftover embryos from in vitro fertilisation. Cloning and the use of any intentionally aborted embryos are haram, according to Ali Qaradaghi, a Sharia professor at the Qatar Foundation's Faculty of Islamic Studies. "The Sharia verdict for stem cells is undoubtedly that preserving human life and human generations is the main aim," he said during the forum. "Anything that achieves this objective in a way that does no harm is considered acceptable."

Concerns about embryos may soon be irrelevant. Researchers in Japan, the UK and the US, where President Barack Obama overturned the Bush ban last year, have had some success genetically reprogramming adult stem cells to act like embryonic stem cells. Such advancements are likely to boost the Gulf's nascent programmes. The three-year old stem cell therapy programme at King Faisal Hospital in Riyadh has published several papers, filed a handful of patent applications and established a collaborative project with Harvard University.

Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, the UAE Minister of Finance and Industry, has set up a Dh20 million (US$5.4m) institution in his name that focuses on genetics and stem cell research and presents major regional and international awards every other year. In Doha, the Qatar Foundation is the nexus. The government-backed non-profit made its interest in stem cell research known in 2006, with a US$2.5m donation to support stem cell research at Rice University's James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Texas.

The Qatar Foundation plans a stem cell laboratory within the $3billion Sidra Medical Centre, which is set to open in 2014 and will include a genetics and stem cell unit. In addition, the foundation has held a series of workshops and partnered with Virgin Health Bank, which is set to open a stem cell storage facility in Doha by next spring. "One of the main goals of the programme is to be oriented toward the Qatari population," said Dr Jeremi Tabrizi, who leads stem cell research at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Leading medical challenges in Qatar and across the Gulf include diabetes, leukaemia and serious blood disorders - all potentially treatable with stem cell therapy. Weill Cornell Medical College has the core capabilities in place and has begun working on cancer stem cells, but is awaiting government policy and legislative decisions before working with embryonic stem cells. "Stem cell research is one of the highest priorities of the emir and Qatar Foundation," added Mr Tabrizi, speaking just after the forum. "All of us are expecting the science to grow here."

Some analysts argue that Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are mainly importing the talent and trademarks from abroad, not building indigenous capacity. But two doctors from Rice University's James Baker Institute, which maintains its stem cell partnership with the Qatar Foundation, believe these programmes hold the potential to not just heal the sick, but also build diplomatic bridges.

"We conclude that the national governments of countries within the greater Middle East," Jesse Flynn and Kristin Matthews write in the March 2010 Stem Cell Review, "have the unique opportunity to establish stem cell research policies which confer interoperability between nations to foster crucial international collaborations throughout the region." @Email:dlepeska@thenational.ae