Stem-cell centres to be launched

A Dubai-based medical company is looking to invest up to Dh60 million to launch the Middle East's first research centre devoted to stem-cell treatment.

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DUBAI // A medical company based in Dubai is looking to invest up to Dh60 million (US$16.3m) to launch the Middle East's first research centre devoted to stem-cell treatment. Shahab al Awadi, the chief executive of Medical Supplies Company (MSC), said he was in negotiations with international medical researchers to open two specialised medical clinics in the UAE by the end of this year that will treat patients with cord-blood stem cells.

Stem cells are the basic building blocks of life that are capable of developing into various types of cells. Researchers say stored stem cells can later be used for a tailor-made cure in the event of disease striking later in life. One centre in Dubai will focus on treatments such as plastic surgery, while the other will be based in Abu Dhabi and will conduct major surgery and research into the treatment of diseases such as diabetes, Mr al Awadi said.

"I started in the medical field and I think that this is a unique opportunity," he said. "We cannot wait to get opportunity from outside, so we have to start from here." Mr al Awadi said banks would finance up to 65 per cent of the initial investment, with the rest of the funds coming from MSC. The company distributes medical equipment throughout the MENA region and reported net profits of Dh7.6m for last year, he said.

"It's a very long-term investment," Mr al Awadi said, adding that he had saved Dh20m in capital costs because MSC would be providing most of the stem cell-related medical equipment. Stem-cell research could be a major boost to the UAE's developing biotechnology market. The Dubai Biotechnology and Research Park announced it had opened its $100m laboratory complex last month, while a national pathology laboratory was launched in December.

The Dubai Cord Blood and Research Centre (DCBRC) has been offering parents the chance to store cord blood since June 2006. Mr al Awadi said his centres would charge families less than Dh7,000 to store their cord blood for 20 years. The DCBRC charges about Dh9,000 for any family, including those with a history of genetic disorders, to store their child's cord blood. But research in the medical field has been a contentious issue in the US, drawing the ire of fundamentalist religious groups that argue the process invades the development of human embryos.

Stem-cell research and treatment is banned in several European countries, including Italy and Germany, because of cloning techniques that are often used. Proponents say the experimentation could lead to treatments that could improve the quality of life. Dr Ali Khalil, the chairman of research at the Khalifa Medical City, said there were no healthcare regulations relating to stem-cell research in the UAE.

"There are two issues here: regulation relating to government policy and another for Sharia policy," Dr Khalil said. "According to Sharia, stem cells is probably OK if taken from and injected back into the same person. "But if it is taken from one person and injected into another, I don't know if that has been discussed among religious people." Dr Akram al Hilali, a haematologist at the Dubai Health Authority, said any research that started in the UAE would be good not only for the country, but for the region as well.

"If you have well-experienced people that can pay for research, then perhaps eventually they can provide the medical centres with support for their treatments," Dr al Hilali said. "Then, the regional healthcare community will start looking to do their own stem-cell research to compete with them to stimulate further knowledge. This can only be a good thing." The ethical debate does not worry Mr al Awadi, who maintained that his plan will not involve embryonic stem cells but focus solely on harvesting blood cells from "adult" stem cells that originate in umbilical cord blood.

But it is unclear whether stem-cell research in the UAE is regulated. This month, a Turkish doctor is expected to become the first medical practitioner in the UAE to perform stem-cell transplant surgeries. The ministry of health had approved the stem-cell expert Dr Haluk Deda opening a clinic in the Dubai Healthcare City.