Dubai, United Arab Emirates - July 11th, 2018: Workers taking their midday break. Wednesday, July 11th, 2018 in Bur Dubai, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Marieh Bassam Al Handawi is developing a heat-resistant vaccine to aid people in need all over the world. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Abu Dhabi student developing heat-proof vaccine to help tackle disease across the globe



An Abu Dhabi student is aiming to tackle diseases across the globe - by developing a cost-effective vaccine which can be transported to remote areas without being damaged by the searing heat.

In the hot summer months, vaccines are often destroyed by the time they reach their recipients in far-flung areas.

High temperatures can cause vaccines to lose their ability to provide protection against diseases - rendering them ineffective in parts of the world where they are desperately needed.

Now Marieh Bassam Al Handawi, a Syrian global PhD chemistry student at NYU Abu Dhabi, is developing a cheaper vaccine that can be successfully transported to all corners of the globe without any of its efficacy  being lost along the way.

Ms Al Handawi was inspired by nature to use a common chemical to protect the vaccines. She embeds the vaccine with calcium carbonate, which has proven to stabilise the vaccine even in extremely hot conditions. Calcium carbonate is used as a supplement for calcium deficiency and is very cheap.

“What makes our research unique is the fact that we are using inorganic crystals that are very cheap. They are very safe for human consumption and are given to people as a supplement for calcium deficiency,” said Ms Al Handawi.

The researcher was inspired by the way nature uses calcium carbonate to protect its self. For example, seashells are made of calcium carbonate.

“We take these bioparticles and embed them inside calcium carbonate crystals. We surround the bioparticles with an armour so that it's protected from the harsh environment,” said Ms Al Handawi.

She is calling for sponsors, such as pharmaceutical companies and government bodies, to come forward and provide the support and funding to take her research to the next stage.

UNICEF explains that the system used for keeping and distributing vaccines in potent conditions is called the 'cold chain'.

Vaccines are sent directly from the supplier to the country of intended use as refrigerated cargo. The vaccines are then moved to freezer rooms and from there, distributed by a refrigerated vehicle. Cold boxes and vaccine carriers are used to distribute the vaccine. People then transport the vaccines via car, camel, motorcycle, bicycle, donkey, camel or on foot to remote areas.

Ma Al Handawi believes she can shorten this chain - and offer a more cost-effective alternative.

“If my research is proven to be successful, we could eliminate some part of the cold chain. The cold chain is a very expensive process and requires a lot of delicate care. I believe that we can save money and energy through this and it will help to get vaccines to people in remote areas,” said Ms Al Handawi.

“We need people to fund us so we can continue the research," said Ms Al Handawi.

Pance Naumov, associate professor of chemistry At NYU Abu Dhabi and mentor to Ms Al Handawi said it is often in the interest of pharmaceutical companies to keep prices of vaccines high.

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“Pharmaceutical companies like to make a profit and they don’t always go with the cheapest solution. We call it Pharma mafia in our jargon. They make a product that can only be used in certain conditions,” said, Mr Naumov.

“We want to make a very simple cheap method to transport the medicines to the population who can’t afford to pay high prices to the pharmaceutical companies,” he added.

“Our achievement is that we have been able to demonstrate that calcium carbonate can stabilise big molecules. We need to incorporate big molecules that will cover many different diseases. In order for us to continue this research, we will need sponsorship either from the government or funding agencies. This will help continue the research. We hope we can get funding and take it to the next level," said Mr Naumov.

“UAE and other countries in the region have a strong incentive to sponsor this project, especially because we live in an arid environment. A large part of the population here lives outside of the big cities. Once the principle is demonstrated it can be taken forward and we can tackle different diseases particular to this part of the world," said Ms Naumov.

One such vaccine used in UAE is the polio vaccine (OPV) which is vulnerable to high temperatures and requires the cold chain to store it at very low temperatures during transportation and storage.

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Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”

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