Cancer and obesity treatments on brink of major breakthroughs in 2024

Doctors look back on the strides made in 2023 and look ahead to further progress

Medical advances are set to benefit patients in 2024 and beyond. PA
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As 2023 celebrated a new era of cancer care and obesity-battling super drugs, a new year in health care promises even more lightning-paced developments in preventative treatments and longevity science to extend human life.

Cancer treatment has made strides with the use of DNA traces, artificial intelligence (AI) and new medical techniques, while experts hope the way obesity is looked at by insurance companies could go a long way to addressing the problem in 2024.

Here, The National takes a look at what progress has been made – and what we can look forward to over the next 12 months.


Liquid biopsies have been shown to catch returning breast cancer in recovering patients by identifying DNA trace elements in the blood, with more cells indicating advanced cancer.

Research under way at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York is exploring whether the same techniques could accurately locate breast cancer cells to potentially transform early screening.

Dr Humaid al Shamsi, head of Emirates Oncology Society, said breakthroughs in the way cancer is spotted and treated are accelerating, leading to better patient outcomes.

“Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal forms of cancer,” he said.

“Often, it eludes detection until it has already begun spreading, resulting in a survival rate of less than 5 per cent over five years.

“However, at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, researchers have made a significant breakthrough. They have developed a test that in a recent study successfully identified 95 per cent of early-stage pancreatic cancers.

“This research elucidates how biomarkers within extracellular vesicles, tiny particles that facilitate communication between cells, were utilised to detect pancreatic, ovarian, and bladder cancers at stages I and II.”

Scientific breakthrough

In the first three months of 2023 there were new approvals for targeted therapies for B-cell malignancies, colorectal cancer, paediatric brain cancer and hormone receptor-positive breast cancers.

From April to June, new modified stem cell therapies based on umbilical cord blood were approved for use, while in the second half of 2023 there were further breakthroughs in treatments for more targeted therapies, including for prostate cancer, some lung cancers and paediatric cancers.

The advancements allowed doctors to give more precise and effective cancer therapies.

One of the most significant developments in medicine for the region in 2023 was the FDA granting approval for the world’s first medicine based on Crispr gene editing technology – Casgevy.

The treatment for sickle-cell disease and transfusion dependent beta-thalassaemia, both of which cause blood cells to carry less oxygen and are common in the Middle East, was a breakthrough in genetic medicines.

“There is a wave of novel advances in therapeutics in the field aiming to either completely cure this genetic disorder or modify the disease in such way to improve the anaemia and significantly reduce the requirement for transfusion therapy,” said Prof Khaled Musallam, who designed the trial for Casgevy.

“Curative therapies include gene-manipulation techniques by either inserting a new correct version of the gene into the human DNA to produce the missing haemoglobin, or gene editing to correct or support the faulty gene unable to produce haemoglobin.”

Obesity cure

One of the biggest health issues in the UAE, obesity, is also in line for a major step forward in the approach to treatment.

Defined as someone with a body mass index above 30kg per metre squared, 17.8 per cent of the UAE population is reported as obese.

At the National Obesity Conference in Abu Dhabi in November, a two-day meeting attended by ministry officials, doctors said there was a groundswell of support for insurers to recognise obesity as a disease.

“Looking to 2024, I am hoping our insurance providers will begin to accept obesity as a disease,” said Dr Brian Mtemererwa, consultant endocrinologist at NMC Royal Hospital Sharjah.

“It's recognised worldwide as a disease, but insurance is not covering these drugs unless someone has diabetes.

“Not only that, insurers will only want to pay if the diabetes is sub-optimally controlled, or if it is poorly controlled.”

Metabolic drugs used to control diabetes, such as Ozempic and Mounjaro, soared in popularity in 2023, as more people turned to the medication to lose weight.

The medications work by mimicking naturally occurring hormones, slowing digestion and supressing appetite.

Dr Mtemererwa said the drugs could give the UAE a golden ticket out of a future health crisis.

“Insurers and patients need to become aware that obesity requires the same attention as any other medical condition that takes them to a hospital,” Dr Mtemererwa said.

“There are plans under way where the government is trying to lobby healthcare funders to ensure they accept obesity as a disease that requires equal attention and funding to prevent extensive complications.”

As technology improves, more patients are being treated remotely, with doctors now able to monitor patient signs and symptom from afar. This has certain benefits, such as keeping the infirm away from other vulnerable groups receiving hospital care, and improving access.

“These technologies have the potential to offer remote consultations, improve patient monitoring, and facilitate medical education,” said Dr Shanila Laiju, group chief executive for Medcare Hospitals and Medical Centres.

“Even though we have resumed face-to-face patient healthcare services since the pandemic, we continue to notice many patients prefer virtual healthcare services.”

Longevity science

Hospitals also reported growth in conventional anti-aging and longevity markets in the GCC, which now accounts for 67 per cent of the total healthcare sector.

Meanwhile, the UAE continues to grow its medical tourism sector, which was forecast to reach Dh19.5 billion in 2023, an annual growth of 10.7 per cent.

Dr Pouya Farhadi, medical director and aesthetic specialist at Skin111 Medical Centre, said health care has seen a dramatic shift to preventative measures in 2023.

“This transformation is reflected in the rise of regenerative medicine, functional medicine, and wellness initiatives, marking a departure from traditional models centred solely around symptom management,” Dr Farhadi said.

“Regenerative medicine holds promise in treating orthopaedic and cardiovascular diseases, neurological disorders, and even autoimmune conditions.

“While research in these areas is ongoing, the potential for regenerative medicine to revolutionise health care is evident, offering personalised and regenerative solutions that target the root causes of illnesses.”

Updated: December 31, 2023, 3:27 AM