ABU DHABI - A local newspaper has said that next month will be the 20th anniversary of the Human Genome Project’s ground-breaking achievement in completing the entire genetic blueprint for a human being. It was an event with profound implications, one that offered the hope of understanding and eventually curing many of the genetic illnesses that plague the human species.
“This week’s news that President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, were present at the unveiling of the UAE’s National Genome Strategy, demonstrates the importance the country has placed on developing this cutting-edge science, particularly when it comes to Arab populations,” The National said in an editorial on Thursday.
The same year that the human genome was mapped, the Dubai-based Centre for Arab Genomic Studies was established with the aim of reducing the burden of genetic disorders in the Arab world. Since then, it has built up an open-access database of bibliographic data on human gene variants associated with inherited or heritable phenotypes in Arabs.
Earlier this month, a research paper from the centre described 1,365 gene mutations reported in Emiratis, more than half of which are classified as disease-causing. Almost a fifth of these have not been reported in international genetic databases.
This data gap was addressed by Abdulla bin Souqat, executive director of the Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum Award for Medical Sciences, who pointed to the importance of ethnic databases such as the CTGA in addressing the under-representation of Arab variant data in international research.
The paper added, "What the National Genome Strategy offers is a chance to close this gap. More than 400,000 Emirati citizens have volunteered so far to give blood samples and DNA cheek swabs to scientists building a genetic map of the population, pointing to how much people value the country’s mission to develop personalised and preventive medicine.
"It is a major milestone on the way to the project’s stated aim of collecting one million samples for study.
The UAE population’s size offers researchers a manageable number to map, allowing scientists and doctors to identify health trends and risks. Examining small populations can deliver critical information, such in the sparsely populated Orkney Islands off the north-east coast of Scotland where a recent study identified a gene mutation that increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer."
Such genetic understanding in the Arab world is vital. According to research, genetic disorders such as sickle cell anaemia, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency and fragile X syndrome are endemic. The British Medical Journal has carried data suggesting that “haemoglobin disorders, inherited metabolic diseases, neurogenetic disorders and birth defects are common among Arab populations”.
The 10-year genome strategy in the UAE will go hand in hand with the country’s adoption of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies. Upon completion, it will not only benefit the Emirati population but will offer a rich source of data for those researching the health needs of Arab populations.
“In terms of scientific achievement, it is a rapid success story and one in which people are voluntarily sharing information that will benefit future generations. Genetic mapping helps us understand where we have come from, but it also offers us a clear path to a healthier future,” concluded the Abu Dhabi-based daily.