Towards Personalized Healthcare

Visualize a world where healthcare is truly tailored to the needs of the individual, where the understanding of the myriad factors that contribute to disease is of such depth as to pinpoint the precise treatment needed for each individual case.
Qatar Biobank conference
It is not only an attractive proposition – the uniqueness of a person being reflected in the uniqueness of the healthcare they receive – but the focus of a determined mission, amid global recognition that the greatest health challenges of the modern age cannot be met by conventional thinking and approaches. Advances in science and research have moved personalized healthcare closer to becoming a reality, and Qatar Biobank, a member of Qatar Foundation (QF), is at the forefront of achieving this reality.

Supporting QF’s mission to enhance Qatar-based innovation and technology through medical research that addresses the nation’s most critical health issues, the work of Qatar Biobank is creating a vault of biological samples and information on the health and lifestyles of a large part of Qatar’s adult population. This unprecedented pool of detail will open new doors of research for scientists locally, regionally, and globally. But if its full potential is to be realized, and the development of precision treatment through the field of genomics is to be furthered, it is a journey that must not be traveled alone.

The need for regional medical research collaboration was at the heart of the inaugural Qatar Biobank conference, ‘Biobanking in the Context of Personalized Healthcare’, which took place at Qatar National Convention Centre from 8-9 February 2015. The first conference of its kind in Qatar, it drew scientists from around the world together to discuss how modern healthcare is evolving, how it can be transformed, and how biobanking can be a pivotal tool for improving the health of future generations.
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The potential that biobanks hold was illustrated by Dr Hanan Al Kuwari, Chairperson, Board of Trustees, Qatar Biobank, in her opening address to a conference that she described as “an incredible opportunity to explore the role biobanking can play in improving the care we provide”. Explaining to delegates how a healthy population with access to safe and effective healthcare is one of the cornerstones of Qatar’s future, Dr Al Kuwari said: “Across the globe, we can see a paradigm shift between this century and the last in medicine and biomedical research.

“Supported by advances in genome sequencing and information technology, we are now moving from an era where medical treatment is reactive, episodic, and standardized, and closer to a future where it is predictive, holistic, and personalized. Collectively, we stand on the brink of major, life-changing breakthroughs.”

Pilot phase
The opportunity to showcase Qatar Biobank’s contribution to this future, and the distance it has traveled in a short time, to an international audience was demonstrated at its conference. Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of Qatar Foundation, officially opened the new, state-of-the-art Qatar Biobank building in Hamad bin Khalifa Medical City on 9 February 2015, the second day of the conference. Weeks earlier, the value of Qatar Biobank’s work was demonstrated through the release of the findings of its two-year operational pilot phase, with samples and health and lifestyle information obtained from 1,200 long-term residents of Qatar painting a new, and comprehensive, picture of the country’s health landscape.

The pilot phase – highlighting a number of existing health and lifestyle issues including obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, impaired lung function, and an alarming lack of physical activity, while allowing existing and potential health conditions to be identified among those volunteered and for medical referrals to be made – represents the first stage of Qatar Biobank’s plans to collect samples from more than 60,000 adult members of Qatar’s population. On a pro-rata basis, this is set to constitute the most comprehensive biobank in the world.

Against this backdrop of progress, industry experts emphasized the regional benefits of these results at the Qatar Biobank conference, where topics such as Middle East biobanks, translational research, and information generation and management within biobanking, were explored. With the Middle East having lacked large-scale, population-based biomedical research, Qatar Biobank’s study is intended to both identify the risk factors surrounding the region’s most prevalent diseases; develop a greater understanding of communities’ genetic make-up, environment, habits, and way of life; and enhance the development of optimized treatments.

As Dr Hadi Abderrahim, Managing Director, Qatar Biobank, explained, the goal is to take the idea of personalized medicine “to the next level”, and as collaboration will be key to achieving this, the conference represented a milestone for Middle East biobanking.
“It has allowed us to discuss our work with a more precise and expert audience.We are a platform to serve scientists in Qatar and the region; they are our customers, and our work with them is essential,” he told The Foundation.

“We have looked to emphasize that the work of Qatar Biobank comprises extremely important and valuable research material, and to share this data. Nobody can do everything on their own. We must be constantly looking for ways in which we can evolve, and one of these is to combine the skills and resources of Middle East biobanks and the scientific community, and to coordinate our efforts and our projects.”

Biobanking network
The value of partnership was stressed during the conference’s roundtable discussion – where contributions were made by biobanking representatives from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia – on forming a Middle East biobanking network. The intention is for it to provide a framework for co-operation and the exchange of knowledge between medical institutions across the region and beyond, so research and medical intervention can be intertwined. “Connections have been made, and biobanks in different countries have discovered more about each other’s work,” said Dr Abderrahim.

“As a region, we share a common culture and common issues, and we also share a common set of diseases and susceptibility factors. This commonality is something we can use to our advantage, in terms of addressing prevalent healthcare issues through biobanking. The characteristics of Qatar’s population are shared by other countries in the region, and this means that Qatar Biobank, through collaboration, can identify personalized healthcare processes that can potentially serve the needs of tens of millions of people.”

The message that science must be pursued collectively, rather than individually, was given added voice at the conference by keynote speaker Dr Elena Cattaneo, Director, Center for Stem Cell Research, University of Milan, and Senator for Life (a senator appointment with life tenure), Italy. “As our goal is to bring benefit to our societies, sharing our research activity is extremely important, especially for a field that considers itself to be at the frontier of the future of the healthcare system,” she said.

“Sharing means exchanging results, exchanging ideas, and developing collaborations – including international collaborations – as they are a key driver. As soon as we do this, we will be able to make an even greater contribution.”

According to Dr Elio Riboli, Director, School of Public Health, Imperial College London – whose scientists provide support to Qatar Biobank – joint working across nations and scientific and medical institutions and disciplines will allow research to be translated into improved treatments and healthcare policies. “We already have knowledge, but we want to know more,” he told delegates.

“We have to understand the interaction between environment, behavior, genetics, and the metabolic components of diseases, and then integrate all these factors through collaboration and scientists with complementary knowledge working together. That is why there is a need for more large-scale population studies through biobanks around the world; we need big data, and to be able to analyze this data, so it can be translated into effective public health and clinical practices.”

For Dr Abderrahim, Qatar Biobank’s work will be valuable to the world in general, and to Qatar in particular. “We believe we have the most comprehensive biobanking protocol in the world, as we collate unique and precise content from which to conduct analysis, but we also have a medical referral role, in terms of identifying health issues among those who participate in our studies,” he said.

“Qatar Biobank is a platform that enables research in Qatar to go to places where it has not gone before, by making available to scientists a wealth of information about the country’s population, from which they can study the correlation between a range of factors, identify the causes of health risks, and allow measures to be taken to address them.”

He believes the mission of Qatar Biobank is one that both supports, and is supported by, the people of Qatar. “Those who have participated in our study have told us they do so because they want to make a positive contribution to future generations,” he said. “At the same time, we want to improve healthcare for the present generation.”

And Dr Al Kuwari is unequivocal about the prospects for success. “There is much hard work ahead, but the benefits to patients and the public will make the effort worthwhile,” she said in her speech to the conference.

“It gives me great pride to see, at first hand, the progress already being made in this most exciting of fields. Ultimately, it is all about putting the patient at the center of all that we do.

“It is about optimizing our tools for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, for a truly patient-focused approach to healthcare in the 21st century. A healthier, personalized future awaits us all.”