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Story | Research
30 October 2018

Why is Qatar investing heavily in studying genes?


The Qatar Genome Programme (QGP) is studying the genetic makeup of the Qatari population in an effort to prevent diseases caused by genetic disorders.

Many can relate to the experience of a relative or friend losing their life to an unforeseen cancerous disease or a heart attack at a young age, despite living a healthy lifestyle. Eighty percent of such rare diseases — which claim millions of lives worldwide every year — are known to be caused by genetic disorders. To prevent these diseases, many countries are now investing resources into genomics: the study of how genes function in a particular population.

“Genomics may hold the key to understanding why a host of lifestyle factors and behaviors affect individuals differently, leading to earlier diagnoses and more effective treatments,” said Dr Asmaa Al Thani, Chairperson of Qatar Genome Programme (QGP) and Vice Chairperson of Qatar Biobank, both of which are members of Qatar Foundation (QF). “Personalized medicine and genomics medicine are part of a new era for medicine. There is a huge investment to work in preventive medicine, rather than just treating the patient after they become sick.”

Launched in 2013, QGP aims to study the genetic makeup of the Qatari population with the aim of introducing personalized healthcare: medical services tailored for individuals based on their genetic background. Its large-scale genomic research of nationals and long-term residents has made Qatar one of the few countries in the world conducting research of this nature.

Personalized medicine and genomics medicine are part of a new era for medicine. There is a huge investment to work in preventive medicine, rather than just treating the patient after they become sick.

Improving existing healthcare services

In many ways, QGP illustrates how Qatar adapts global solutions and best practices to local contexts, instead of following a template used by other developed countries wholesale. In this case, the program analyzes whether certain drugs created and tested in Western countries have the same impact on patients residing in Qatar.

“[We are analyzing] diabetic and cardiovascular drugs that are heavily used for the Qatari population, trying to see the metabolism of these drugs,” said Dr Al Thani, adding that a person’s metabolic rate can impact the extent of the side effects a drug may cause. “We need to respect the genomic identity of each population. That is, finding out what kind of diseases are more prevalent in this population, and what kind of drugs can be treated or react better in this population.”

Since genomics is an emerging field, it’s important to make people understand its significance so they become more willing to share their medical history, blood samples, and biographical details. With this in mind, QGP hosts a ‘Genome Café’ that gathers the local community to discuss genetics and its impact.

Additionally, it has contributed to the creation of an exhibition at Msheireb Museums that displays information about DNA and lets visitors explore genetic inheritance and prehistoric human migrations through interactive screens.

A recent benchmarking survey conducted by QGP found out that 72 percent of Qatari nationals are willing to share their biological samples with the organization, demonstrating their willingness to know more about their health and prevent future illnesses.

“We were very motivated to find that the people of Qatar, and healthcare professionals, have been reacting positively to QGP and its ongoing initiatives,” added Dr Al Thani.

Involving stakeholders

The integrated healthcare network created by QF — including Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q), Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), Sidra Medicine, and Qatar Biobank, as well as collaboration with Qatar University, helps the project catalyze its efforts to advance genomic research through collaborations and sharing of resources.

The Q-Chip can store thousands of genes in each of its small cubes.

In 2018, QGP, Qatar Biobank, and WCM-Q launched Q-Chip, the country’s first gene chip that can store hundreds of thousands of gene variants in a small device much smaller than a postage stamp. Previously, rare or abnormal gene samples would be sent out of the country for diagnosis, but now they are being stored on the Q-Chip for examination.

To date, the program has sequenced more than 11,000 whole genomes, a feat Dr Al Thani believes would not have been possible in such a short time without contributions from other local stakeholders. The partners are now working with Qatar’s main healthcare provider, Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC), to become the primary end-user of the Q-chip.

Working with other entities, however, also comes with its challenges.

“The project nature is very complicated. We need to work with [experts in] ethics, academia, and service organizations like HMC, so each one sees their agenda as a priority,” explained Dr Al Thani. “Coordination between different stakeholders is not easy, but there is strong trust between us and other entities.”

Being part of QF’s unique ecosystem also provides an opportunity to integrate genomics in academics, so that Qatar can produce future experts in the field capable of taking on roles that may otherwise be hard to fill, such as genetic counselors. To this end, QGP has joined forces to establish graduate education programs in Qatar, including a Genetic Counselling MSc at Qatar University and a Genomic Medicine MSc/PhD program at HBKU.

Dr Al Thani concludes: “We are proud that Qatar started this project, because now it’s not monthly but daily that you will find publications talking about genomics. Any delay [in advancing in this field] will multiply, so the faster we can be involved in this area, the more it will reflect on and impact our healthcare system in the future.”

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