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UAE advances study of genetic diseases with the launch of first-of-its-kind Center for Genomic Discovery

The UAE has taken another stride towards becoming a global hub for healthcare research excellence with the launch of a first-of-its-kind Center for Genomic Discovery, which will help diagnose and treat patients with genetic disorders, enhance local genomic research, and train the country’s next generation of scientists.

The Center has been made possible through the creation of a new and innovative scientific and clinical interdisciplinary ecosystem by Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences (MBRU) and Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital (AJCH) through its Al Jalila Genomics Center.

The Center was launched during the University’s participation at Arab Health 2021 within the Dubai Healthcare City stand, under the “Research and Innovation” theme, designed to enhance Dubai’s position at the forefront of advanced sciences.

Aligned with the leadership’s new vision for the future of the health sector, the launch coincides with the formation of the Board of Emirati Genome Program, headed by His Highness Sheikh Khalid bin Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Member of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council and Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Office, to oversee and guide the implementation of the Emirati Genome Program in the country’s healthcare system.

Dr. Amer Sharif, Vice Chancellor of MBRU and member of the Board of Emirati Genome Program, said: “The support of the UAE’s leadership has enabled us to record this latest major milestone. These are life-changing outcomes that underline the power of research and the role of MBRU and our academic health system partners as research-intensive institutes.”

“The establishment of the Center of Genomic Discovery through an integrated academic health system will allow us to innovate in genomics application and gene discovery. This will also enable us to realize our vision of advancing health through cutting-edge academic research and nurturing future scientists serving individuals and communities in the UAE and the region,” Dr. Sharif added.

“This is a major development for Dubai and the UAE,” explained Dr. Ahmad Abou Tayoun, Director, Al Jalila Children’s Genomics Center and Associate Professor of Genetics at MBRU. “The new Center leverages the clinical, genomics, and functional research infrastructure and human resources at Al Jalila Children’s and MBRU to propel interdisciplinary activities. Our clinicians and researchers are experts in their respective fields who can help resolve undiagnosed patients with highly suspected inherited disorders. Furthermore, the Center will create a training and research site for Masters and Ph.D. students, as well as post-doctoral fellows at MBRU.”

The Center will seek to engage undiagnosed pediatric patients with suspected hereditary disorders whose clinical genomic testing at Al Jalila Children’s – such as whole-exome sequencing and chromosomal microarrays – failed to identify any definitive genetic causes. Researchers will then analyze the patients’ negative genetic data for any possible novel findings.

“Ultimately, the Center’s main goal is to make novel genetic discoveries in the pediatric patient population in the UAE and the region, and leverage these discoveries to develop new diagnostic tools and uncover personalized pathways to restore ‘normal’ phenotypes in affected patients,” added Dr.  Abou Tayoun.

Dr. Fahad Ali, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology, MBRU, added: “The necessary interdisciplinary activities – including patient recruitment, genomic data analysis, and functional characterization – cannot be undertaken without the Center, its founding institutions and the interdisciplinary ecosystem they have created. At the Center, functional experiments will be designed to characterize any novel candidate genes or mutations, to establish new gene-disease associations, and to explore potential therapeutic targets.

The Center for Genetic Discovery has already begun investigations into the cause of a genetic disease in one family within the UAE with promising progress, revealed Professor Stefan Du Plessis, Founding Dean of Research and Graduate Studies, MBRU and a member of the Center’s Steering Committee.

“At least one novel gene has been identified by whole-exome sequencing – a complex genomic test which surveys all 20,000+ human genes in search for tiny changes which might be disease causing,” explained Professor Du Plessis.

“Functional analysis is still ongoing but preliminary data strongly suggests a role in disease. We have also identified patients outside the UAE, in the Gulf region, with the same clinical conditions, mutations and gene. We are now establishing collaborations with researchers from those sites to characterize this gene. The fact that patients from different backgrounds with similar clinical features have mutations in the same gene further establishes a potential new gene-disease discovery.”

The initiative is also aligned with MBRU’s core goals of training and nurturing scientists and supporting research in the medical and biomedical sciences in the UAE and enhance the appeal of the newly established Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences – the first doctoral program at MBRU.

Research carried out at the Center will be published in high profile journals. It will also raise the profile of Dubai, MBRU and Al Jalila Children’s as leading research centers at the heart of advanced medical science.

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