The era of precision medicine could be moving nearer in the Middle East after a centre that offers training in genetic testing was officially opened.
Illumina, a Californian-based biotechnology company, has inaugurated its Illumina Solutions Centre in Dubai at a time when the healthcare sector globally is increasingly focusing on precision or personalised medicine.
This cutting-edge field involves analysing an individual’s genetic characteristics to inform decisions about the most suitable treatment.
"The UAE is a hub for us in the region," Susan Tousi, Illumina’s chief commercial officer, said.
"We’ve done this in a number of other locations ― we’ve opened centres in Brazil for Latin America, South Korea, outside Paris and Berlin. For us, Dubai is a really exciting opportunity."
The Illumina Solutions Centre is equipped with genetic testing equipment and offers training in diagnostic tests, such as non-invasive prenatal screening or genomic tests for cancer. The techniques that the centre offers training in are also relevant to conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and neurological disorders.
"It will be a hub where we can bring people together to not only get more familiar with the technology, but understand its impact … on improving healthcare outcomes," Ms Tousi said.
"We expect to be working with customers running small labs, with ministries of health and government customers, customers in the research space. We expect we’ll be working with hospitals in the area."
Better understanding of diseases
What makes the centre in Dubai particularly significant, she indicated, is that many technologies associated with precision medicine have often tended to be most widely available to populations of European descent.
Among the reasons for this is that in Europe and North America greater amounts of research funding has been available, and people from ethnic minorities have tended to be poorly represented in studies.
Yet such genetic testing and diagnostics are particularly important in the Middle East because some conditions with a genetic basis tend to be more prevalent.
Ms Tousi said the imbalance between populations across the world in how well their genetic susceptibility to disease was understood was "an issue that’s of great importance" to Illumina.
"We’re really excited to boost the … representation of the Middle Eastern genome and provide better diagnostics and much better therapies for the region," she said.
Having more data from Middle Eastern populations will lead to "much better healthcare outcomes" as well as improved drug development and therapies for disease specific to populations in the region.
The work of the centre could kick-start research projects that improve the understanding of the genetic basis of disease in Middle Eastern populations.
"We do hope this inspires large-scale research projects that give us the knowledge of what’s the genetic variation in the population," Ms Tousi said.
Precise Middle East studies
Scientists in the UAE say that greater investment in genetic studies specific to Middle Eastern populations will help to redress the deficit in knowledge.
Dr Marc Haber, of the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences at the Dubai International Academic City campus of the University of Birmingham, said until now populations from the region had been studied "very little".
Sometimes large numbers of genes may influence an individual’s susceptibility to a particular medical condition and the mutations or genetic variants at play may differ between ethnic groups.
"If you don’t sequence these populations, you will never find those mutations specific to these populations," he said.
"You would find one that are shared [between ethnic groups], but the specific ones, you would be blind to them.
"This is very important, because complex diseases are not just [caused by] one mutation. You have thousands of mutations contributing to the specific disease."
He said the opening of the centre was "a good move from Illumina", which he described as "the largest player" in the market.
"The result of this is we’re going to have more people interested in sequencing and these people will be able to work in the research labs," he said.
"These research labs will be able to replicate what’s been done in Europe and [elsewhere] outside the Middle East. It’s a move in the right direction but it’s the first step."
Ms Tousi said science was "still at the very, very beginning" of understanding the role that genes play in the development of many illnesses.
"We understand less than one per cent of genetic variation related to disease," she said. "There’s so much more to be discovered through research."
The technologies the new centre will train people in apply not just to medicine. They may be useful, Ms Tousi said, for fields including agriculture, for example by assisting efforts to develop more drought-tolerant varieties of plants, which are of particular importance in the Middle East.