The national Emirati Genome Project was announced in December 2019. Through the project, the federal government aims to obtain comprehensive data regard-ing the genetic make-up of the country’s population in order to raise the efficacy of medical interventions, diagnoses and treatments, boosting the quality of patient outcomes. Genomic mapping relies on DNA-se-quencing technologies and artificial intelligence (AI), and, as such, the project is both driver and beneficiary of the UAE’s aim to implement advanced technologies throughout its health care systems and procedures. 

“There is burgeoning interest in the fields of AI and machine learning, with the seeds of innovation being sown far and wide,” Dr Jorge Guzman, CEO of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, told OBG. “The fruits of these pioneer-ing efforts, however, will require time to mature before being widely adopted. A select few organisations are spearheading this movement, setting commendable examples in their respective industries.”

Emirate Contribution

While the Emirati Genome Project is nationwide, Abu Dhabi-based authorities and entities are playing a leading role in project oversight, execution and application. Broad oversight is handled at the federal level, with the UAE Genomics Council responsible for regulating and monitoring all genom-ics-related activities within the country (see overview). However, the project itself is being managed through a strategic public-private partnership between DoH and Abu Dhabi-based AI specialist firm G42, with the former assuming a leadership role and the latter responsible for execution. Notably, G42 and Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment Company merged their health assets to create M42, which will work to deepen research and development (R&D) activities and partnerships across areas such as pharmaceuti-cals, medical technologies and health care provision to regional and global markets. 

The intended scale of the Emirati Genome Project makes it one of the most ambitious research projects of its type around the world. The federal government intends to map the genomics of 1m Emiratis, a fig-ure that it believes will offer valuable insight into the genomic sequence of the entire UAE population. By March 2023 over 400,000 Emirati citizens had submit-ted voluntary cheek swab or blood samples. 

Once samples are gathered, automated genomic sequencing machines are able to produce individual genomic profiles. Such profiles have enabled medi-cal practitioners and scientists to identify individual genetic vulnerabilities. This not only allows for more accurate immediate-term decision-making, but could enable the identification of potential diseases long before they arise, as it is believed that with a broad enough database specific genes could be proven to indicate vulnerability to specific diseases and disorders. The information gathered also enables more precise identification of the most effective medicines and treatments for any given patient. 

Such advancements enable health care practitioners and providers to reduce and even eliminate traditional trial-and-error methods involved in finding the correct medicines and treatments for individuals, which in addition to enhanced cost- and time-efficiency, reduces the likelihood that a patient will experience adverse side effects and, in some cases, severe adverse events from taking a range of drugs. 

Financial Benefits

The positive economic impact of the enhanced precision and efficiency afforded by genomic data could be felt throughout the emirate’s health care system, from service providers to patients and insurance companies. Dramatic reductions in the cost of the sequencing process itself have made its broad implementation more viable: in 2001, human genome-mapping in the region cost $100m, whereas by 2021 it could be executed for around $1000. 

An 18-month study, which was launched in 2018 in the US and through which health care providers implemented genome sequencing into the medical care regime of 178 critically ill infants, returned dramatic reductions in the number of inpatient days required by those in the study cohort. 

When placed into a private payer model – based on that of a leading US insurance company – such as result would have resulted in net cost savings in the range of $2.9m to $4.6m, at an average of $30,748 in cost saved per patient. Such evidence led the World Economic Forum in its 2021 report titled “An Economic Analysis of the Value of Genetic Testing” to predict that the global market for genetic sequencing would rise to $37.7bn by 2026, a compound annual increase of just over 19% for the period 2021-26.

Synergizing Developments

Development else-where in the life sciences segment add to the sense that the next phase of the emirate’s vision of an advanced and integrated health sector is taking shape. Abu Dhabi Stem Cells Centre (ADSCC) opened in 2019, the first facility of its type in the UAE. Not only is stem cell ther-apy an advanced, innovative and effective treatment in its own right, it can in some cases be combined with gene therapy to boost the efficacy of those treatments.

ADSCC is a comprehensive hospital and advanced research centre specialising in regenerative medicine techniques. Doctors and scientists work together on site, synergising research and practical application. Its capacities include stem cell lab processing, stem cell lab culture and sorting, clinical trial coordination and molecular biology, microscopy, flow cytometry, and cryobiology labs and facilities. These activities contrib-ute to the delivery of a range of specialised services, including, but not limited to, bone marrow transplant, CAR-T cell therapy, haematology, endocrinology, immu-nology and internal medicine. ADSCC also specialises in regenerative medicine. “In the realm of regenerative medicine, our scientists and researchers are working on the artificial generation of organ tissues, calibrated to circumvent rejection. Such work has transformative potential in the field of organ transplants,” Dr Yendry Ventura, CEO of ADSCC, told OBG. 

Meanwhile, bone marrow transplants, extracorporeal photopheresis – an advanced non-surgical procedure used to treat autoimmune disorders, graft-versus-host disease, a complication arising from bone marrow trans-plants and stem cell transplant procedures in children and chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell procedures are being researched and administered at ADSCC. CAR T-cell therapy is a type of immunology in which T cells types of white blood cells that fight off disease and infections, and are produced in the thymus gland – are reprogrammed to locate and eliminate cancer cells. CAR T-cell therapies have been proven effective in the treatment of various blood cancers, such as myeloma, lymphoma and certain types of leukaemia. In 2021 ADSCC began developing and testing the treatment for this purpose. Cancer is currently the third-lead-ing cause of death in the UAE, motivating medical bodies to work towards the localisation of treatment.