Gene research offers hope to diabetics

Emiratis have second highest incidence of diabetes in the world and students are working on ways to unlock causes of disease.

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DUBAI // Emiratis have the second highest incidence of diabetes in the world, and identifying its causes and finding a remedy are vital. Now help may be on the way - and the idea is home-grown. An Emirati PhD student has developed ways of uncovering the genes that cause diseases including diabetes in local populations, in particular among the Bedouin community. The identification of specific genes can lead to improved prognosis and can be used to predict what kind of complications a patient may develop, such as loss of eyesight or kidney failure.

With this knowledge, such complications may be more easily prevented or eliminated in future. Habiba al Safar, 32, has been studying diabetes for her doctorate at the University of Western Australia. Previously, she worked in the forensic science unit of Dubai Police, which supported her through a scholarship to study in Australia. She said: "Genes are the blueprints that determine how human beings are put together. They are in our bodies and, through an understanding of their role and function, researchers can make sense of the causes of disease. This will help pharmaceutical companies develop drugs that are specific for local populations which will lead to improved treatment regimes."

Dr Kamal Khazanehdari, the head of molecular biology and genetics at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory said it was vital to support Emirati research - especially in this field, given the prevalence of diabetes in the UAE. "Habiba's research is unique in terms of its size and the technology applied," he said. Through her research, Ms al Safar has developed a pilot family registry. The database was compiled from interviews conducted in nine primary care centres and three hospitals across the UAE and involved 23,000 people, 2,600 of whom were Bedouin volunteers. The pilot study, which has spawned the Emirates Family Registry, the precursor of a possible bio-bank facility in the UAE, will now be assessed by the Ministry of Health and the country's healthcare centres as a potential tool to unlock further genetic secrets of local populations.

Diabetes, particularly Type 2, which is prevalent in the UAE, results from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. To facilitate her research to find diabetes genes in Bedouins, Ms al Safar has focused on developing a close relationship with families with a history of the illness. As there is a strong genetic component, the ability to identify genetic differences in patients and unaffected relatives is an efficient technique to isolate the bad genes.

Lifestyle and environmental factors can then be controlled through a good diet and exercise plan, with therapy if required. In her travels throughout the region, Ms al Safar has confirmed a high level of homogeneity among the Bedouin, arising from the common practice of consanguineous partnerships (between blood relatives, usually cousins). This in some ways had made the hunt for diabetes genes simpler, she said.

She has been working on a family of 470 members over six generations scattered throughout the region. Some members are based in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and others have migrated to places including Oman and Bahrain. Sixty-six of the 470 were found after screening to be suffering from diabetes. Eight members were unaware of their disease.