As a leading venue for medical research in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia notable areas of focus include fields such as genomics and stem cell treatment. While data suggests that it remains a comparatively minor player on the international stage, there are signs that this is changing as foreign institutions are establishing research initiatives in the Kingdom with local partners.
The largest medical research institution in the Kingdom is the King Fahd Medical Research Centre (KFMRC), located in Jeddah, which was founded in 1980 as part of King Abdulaziz University. Around 300 academic staff work at the centre, which operates four specialised institutes covering genomic medicine research, osteoporosis research, nanotechnology and environmental studies.
Another major institution is the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh, which hosts a department of biological and medical research made up of 14 research units focused primarily on cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Programmes at the facility include a stem cell therapy programme and cancer genomic research programme focused on types of cancer that are particularly prevalent in the Kingdom. This is particularly important as cancer profiles in Saudi Arabia differ significantly from the world average. For example, while lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide, according to the WHO, it was only the seventh-most common cancer in the Kingdom in 2007, at around 4.5%, likely due to low smoking rates. Breast cancer was the most common cancer in Saudi Arabia in 2007, accounting for 13.8% of all diagnoses, according to the Saudi Cancer Registry.
The continued expansion of the country’s medical city network will boost research activity, with each city set to focus on a particular research specialisation. Activity is also set to increase as foreign institutions undertake research projects in the Kingdom with local partners. In April 2011 the MoH, the Innovative Vector Control Consortium and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine established the International Centre for Vector-Borne Diseases (ICVBD), supported by $5.5m in seed funding from the government. The centre’s mandate is to develop methods that will monitor, evaluate and control the spread of diseases carried by insects that pose a serious threat, with a particular focus on the Kingdom and the region.
Initiatives to digitise patient records (see above) and establish nationwide e-record databases also offer a potential major boost to research possibilities. While it is not clear to what extent these will be used for research purposes in the Kingdom, the creation of such databases in theory offers the possibility of effectively conducting large-scale trials on issues involving drugs that are already licensed and in use, measuring aspects such as side effects and interactions of licensed drugs, and the comparative effectiveness of similar drugs used to treat the same conditions. Such databases allow for data mining without the expense and difficulties of establishing actual clinical trials, as well as the ability to conduct research on a much larger scale than is feasible in standard clinical trials, simply by mining data on patients using particular drugs.
Available data suggests that the Kingdom is an important venue for clinical trials by GCC regional standards, though a comparatively small one on the international scene. As of late October 2012 the US National Institute of Health’s ClinicalTrials.gov website listed a total 220 trials registered in Saudi Arabia, which was the highest among the GCC countries by far. CenterWatch, a clinical trial information resource, listed 16 clinical trials recruiting for participants, a low number by international standards and the highest at the time among GCC states. The Kingdom is also a regional leader in published papers.
While Saudi Arabia is a relative newcomer to the clinical research scene, a number of projects are currently aiming to expand research activity and the Kingdom’s work has already proven significant at the regional level. These will be likely to help Saudi Arabia become a more important player on a global scale.
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