Putting technology to use: Supporting research and rolling out new treatment options

While the sheer scale of its hospital building programme is testament to the increase in the quantity of the Kingdom’s health facilities, money is also being spent on improving the quality of services. New cutting-edge facilities are being created to put the most recent technology to use and advances are being made in research in both medicine and biomedical sciences.

PROTON THERAPY: At King Fahad Medical City (KFMC) in Riyadh, construction work is under way for one of the world’s first proton therapy centres for cancer, using new technology from California’s Varian Medical Systems. Varian’s ProBeam was first used by the Scripps Centre in San Diego in February 2014 and has also been installed at centres in Germany and Switzerland. According to Varian, proton therapy can be used to treat certain types of cancer more precisely and with fewer potential side effects than conventional radiation therapy. It claims the method can be applied to many of the most common types of cancer and is particularly effective when treating tumours close to radiosensitive tissues. It also claims paediatric patients treated with proton therapy have a lower chance of developing radiation-induced cancer later in life. Varian won the $77m contract to install its technology at KFMC in January 2012 and the centre is set for completion by the end of 2014. The proton therapy centre will be leased and run by a private firm for 20 years in what was described in local media reports as the Kingdom’s first health care public-private partnership.

KACCLD: Another new medical centre under construction in Saudi Arabia’s capital is designed to help patients suffering from liver cancer and other liver diseases. The King Abdullah Centre for Cancer and Liver Diseases (KACCLD) will be housed in a 23-storey tower being built on the campus at King Faisal Specialist Hospital. The 360-bed centre will be connected to the existing hospital and will include walk-in clinics, inpatient nursing units and treatment areas, diagnosis and support including haematology, oncology and surgical oncology. KACCLD is expected to have a soft opening in October 2014 and to be fully operational by early 2015. The centre will add to King Faisal’s reputation as an institution in the vanguard of research and treatment in the GCC and on the global level. “We are developing centres of excellence and senior specialists who are making a name internationally,” Khaled Manaa Alkattan, dean of the College of Medicine and professor of surgery at King Faisal University, told OBG. “Our children’s bone marrow centre at King Faisal is number one in the world. We have a big population of young people in Saudi Arabia and this helps us to be leaders in many areas of treatment affecting younger patients.”

REWARDING RESEARCH: Funding for the specialist hospital and the university is provided by the King Faisal Foundation. Each year the foundation helps promote research and excellence by awarding international prizes in several fields, including medicine, science, service to Islam and Arabic literature. Sixteen former recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in their area of expertise since the prizes were first awarded in 1976. The 2014 international prize for medicine was awarded to a pioneer in non-invasive diagnosis of foetal diseases from Hong Kong. Professor Yuk Ming Dennis Lo trained at Cambridge and Oxford, and returned to Hong Kong to join the Faculty of Medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), where he became a professor in 2003. He is currently the director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences and Li Ka Shing professor of medicine, professor of chemical pathology, chairman and chief-of-service of the Department of Chemical Pathology at CUHK and Prince of Wales Hospital, and associate dean for research of the CUHK Faculty of Medicine. The King Faisal International Prize for Medicine citation said, “Professor Yuk Ming Dennis Lo was awarded this prize for his efforts which have transformed the field of prenatal genetic diagnosis through his discovery of cell-free foetal nucleic acids in the maternal blood and the identification of their placental source. He built upon this pivotal discovery to develop and translate techniques for risk-free determination of foetal aneuploidy and monogenic disease, and ultimately the sequencing of the full foetal genome from cell-free DNA.” The winners of the prize each received $200,000 at a ceremony in March 2014. Since the awards began, 62 winners from 11 countries have won the prize for medicine. The topic for the 2015 prize is intestinal micro-flora and human health.

GENOME-MAPPING: Scientists in Saudi Arabia, working with colleagues from China, have also applied genome science to increase understanding of some of the Kingdom’s flora and fauna. In December 2013, researchers from King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) and the Genomics Centre, founded in association with China’s Academy of Sciences (CAS), announced they had cracked the genomic code of the date palm, a breakthrough that could herald improvements in cultivation techniques and raise yields. This followed earlier research at KACST into the genome map of the Arabian camel, and researchers are now turning their attention to a weevil that infests date palms, in the hope that its genome map will suggest ways to protect crops and improve agricultural productivity.

HUMAN GENOME: In December 2013, the Saudi Human Genome Project, an ambitious plan to measure and respond to genetic diseases, was launched. The three-year project funded by KACST will carry out sequencing on 20,000 subjects through a network of centres around the country. The information will be studied and compiled into a KACST knowledge base. The idea is that this will be the first step in creating a health care system tailored to the personal requirements and genetic predispositions of individual patients. Prince Turki bin Saud bin Mohammad Al Saud, deputy chairman of KACST, said, “This programme will position [Saudi Arabia] at the forefront of personalised medicine.”

CANCER RESEARCH: In February 2014 KACST announced it had supported 53 individual projects designed to research the causes or treat the symptoms of cancer. Abdulaziz Mohamed Alswailem, vice-president for scientific research support at KACST, launched the 32nd meeting on “Modern Technologies to Detect and Treat Cancer”, which was organised by the General Directorate for Research Grants at KACST. The first speaker at the event was Mohamed Hussein Al Qahtani, director of the Centre of Excellence for Medical Genome Research at King Abdulaziz University, who spoke about the incidence of breast cancer in Saudi Arabia. According to a study published in scientific journals in 2005, breast cancer accounted for 19.8% of all female cancers in the country. Al Qahtani said that both genetic and environmental factors may explain why the average age at which the illness is discovered in Saudi Arabia is 47, compared to 57 in the US. He also considered marriage among relatives and changes in sleeping habits, with more people staying up later, as possible factors that might turn healthy cells into malignant ones. Al Qahtani stressed that the relatively young age of those suffering from cancer should be reason enough to accelerate the establishment of national genetic screening programmes to help identify those most vulnerable to the condition.

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The Report: Saudi Arabia 2014

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