The future of health care is in our genes

Innovations that offer new ways of thinking about disease and longevity can jump from the esoteric world of advanced science into popular consciousness

A digital representation of the human genome at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The UAE has long recognised the potential for improved health that can come from a deep understanding of human genetics. Getty
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For those not intimately involved in the rush to further develop artificial intelligence and other new technologies, such innovations can sometimes feel a little esoteric. However, this disconnect is often overcome when cutting-edge science moves out of the research lab and into our lives, and few things have as much importance to us as our health.

When bold new technologies present us with fresh ways of thinking about disease, treatment and longevity, they can make the leap from the world of advanced science into popular consciousness. This week in Abu Dhabi, we saw some compelling examples of this process at work as well as some glimpses of the future of advanced health care.

Launched at Abu Dhabi Global Healthcare Week, a groundbreaking biobank that is expected to open next year in the capital’s Masdar City looks set to become a cornerstone of medical research in the UAE. The state-of-the-art centre, spanning 2,000 square metres, will house the largest collection of human biological materials in the region, including blood samples, saliva and cell samples. It will be able to store up to five million biological samples and 100,000 stem cells.

Its implications are profound. Research published in November last year found that although Arabs represent 5 per cent of the world’s population and have a high prevalence of common disease, they remain greatly underrepresented in global drug trials and genome studies; this means missed opportunities for disease prevention and discovery.

The biobank – a collaboration between tech-based health company M42 and the Abu Dhabi Department of Health – aims to address this dangerous data gap and rectify the imbalances and inequalities that persist when it comes to medical research for the Arab world. But although this innovation is new, it is also just the latest contribution to the genetic research that has been taking place in the UAE for years.

This week in Abu Dhabi, we saw some compelling glimpses of the future of advanced health care

The country has long recognised the potential for improved health that can come from a deep understanding of human genetics. The Dubai-based Centre for Arab Genomic Studies has operated for 20 years (almost from the time the human genome was first mapped) and last year the UAE launched its National Genome Strategy to map the DNA of every Emirati as the country seeks to provide personalised medical care for its citizens.

The biobank project and “genomic passports” that can identify an individual’s genetic health risks will not just benefit Emiratis but other Arab populations, too. It is a significant indicator of the importance the Emirates is placing on AI and high-level tech to re-write the script on health.

Such new thinking could be heard in comments at the Abu Dhabi event this week from Mariam Al Mheiri, Head of International Affairs at the Presidential Court and former Minister of Climate Change and Environment who said that instead of focusing on increasing the number of hospitals, “we should aim to reduce their necessity”. As was noted in The National’s Weekend Essay on Friday: “Imagine if hospitals were paid to keep people healthy.”

Genome passports and biobanks operating among a mappable population like the UAE’s can contribute to this rethinking of what medicine can be – a change from sudden action to deal with acute illnesses to one that is preventive in nature. However, there are ethical and data issues to consider.

Speaking to The National, Albarah Elkhani, senior vice president at M42, emphasised the importance of informed consent from patients for cord-blood banking and hospital collections, with samples to be used ethically for research purposes. He is right to do so because ethics and responsible regulation will be critical to the success of technologically driven healthcare and its acceptance by the public.

Oversight must keep pace with technical developments – and given the speed with which AI and other innovations are expanding, this will be a major challenge. But as tech-driven health care continues to move from the realm of science fiction into reality, the potential benefits are immense.

Published: May 15, 2024, 3:00 AM