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BioQatar: Luring Biotech Dollars to the Desert


By Kevin Davies

December 12, 2008 | DOHA, Qatar -- It is not every day that one attends a conference where the housekeeping announcements include the location of the prayer room or the moderator is a television news anchor with Al Jazeera. But it is not every day that a tiny Arab principality decides to make a concerted effort to woo foreign biotech and capital investment. Judging by the delegates and proceedings at the BioQatar 2008 symposium*, Qatar is well on its way.

Qatar is a tiny nation nestled between Kuwait to the north and the United Arab Emirates to the south. The 200,000 native Qataris are outnumbered 3:1 by foreign workers from countries such as India and the Philippines. While the newly opened Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei and sitting majestically on its own island in the Doha Corniche, is certain to draw throngs of visitors, the Qatar Foundation (QF) has its sights on modern science and medicine rather than antiquities. “Our goal is to become the scientific center of excellence in the Middle East, and rekindle the reputation for learning in the region from several centuries ago,” said QF president Fathy Saoud.

The country has already fostered close ties with several US universities, including Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, and Texas A&M. Last May, the Weil Cornell Medical College in Qatar, on the sand-swept outskirts of Doha, proudly saw its first class of 15 medical students take the Hippocratic Oath before starting their residencies in the US. Cornell is the first American university to offer its MD degree overseas, with the same admission standards and curriculum as the parent institution. The Qatar school has enrolled students from more than 30 countries, and boasts enviable e-learning technologies, with lectures regularly streamed live from Ithaca to Doha. In all, Doha’s Education City boasts 70 nationalities among its faculty and students.

Saoud said a priority was to build a reputation for research excellence and culture. “Education is not enough on its own,” he said. “We must become generators of knowledge, not just consumers of it.” To that end, the Emir of Qatar has dedicated 2.8% of the nation’s GDP to research and technology. Given that Qatar is the world’s third largest producer of liquefied natural gas, Saoud was being a tad modest when he noted that was “a very credible proportion by international and regional standards.”

Three Pillars

Qatar is seeking to attract investors in fundamental and applied research, and technology development, focusing on three areas: energy, the environment and biomedical research. There was talk of advancing personalized and predictive healthcare, bringing academic health sciences closer to hospital practice and delivery at the bedside and raising the standard of healthcare throughout the country. The two major health problems facing Qatar are cancer and diabetes, with speculation that the country’s high levels of consanguinity – one in two to one in three marriages are between first cousins – might contribute to the disease prevalence.

The BioQatar symposium attracted an impressive list of speakers, including outgoing NIH director Elias Zerhouni, Nobel laureate and stem cell pioneer Sir Martin Evans, and one of the UK’s best known venture capitalists, Sir Christopher Evans (no relation). Zerhouni gave an overview of global medical and research priorities, talking about the shift from acute to chronic diseases; the impact of an ageing population on the frequency of neurodegenerative diseases; the threat of re-emerging infectious diseases; the new mechanistic understanding of disease; and the new paradigm of the 4 P’s – predictive, personalized, participatory and preemptive medicine.

Speaking in a thick Welsh accent, Christopher Evans must have ingratiated himself to his hosts by pointing out that “medical science literally started here – Islamic medical science was fantastic 1000 years ago.” The first vaccine and the first pharmacies were developed in the Middle East, he said, but “Islamic medical science got lost somewhere in the past 1000 years,” while Europe moved out of the Dark Ages.

Whether Evans’ firm Excalibur (a successor to Merlin Ventures) will charge to the rescue remains to be seen, although his post-conference private audience with Her Highness Sheikha Mozah signals genuine interest. Evans says he is excited about building one or two local biotech companies in Qatar and stimulating US and European investment. He is poised to open a major office in Doha.

His resume speaks volumes: the venture fund has built 45 medical companies, developed 200 novel medicines, and a net worth of some $7.5 billion. “Our firms have saved many lives,” he said. Evans said Qatar’s future looked fantastic, but it “must cover the whole waterfront – don’t specialize in cancer or diabetes.” He praised the facilities currently under construction, and said it was important for Qatari students to travel before returning home to establish businesses.

From left to right: Dr Javaid Sheikh, Dr Eulian Roberts, Dr Abdelali Haoudi, Dr Tidu Maini, and H E Dr Ghalia Al Thani speaking at the podium.

Qatar’s health minister, Ghalia Al Thani, discussed the country’s priorities: diabetes is rampant, the median age is 76 and improving, but a major cause of premature death is something more mundane: traffic accidents (299 in 2006) and workplace injuries. Consanguineous marriages (54%) were being addressed from social and medical aspects. Smoking (42% men) and obesity, especially in children, are also concerns. 

The director of Qatar’s Science and Technology Park, Eulian Roberts, said that the country’s flagship teaching hospital, the 380-bed Sidra Medical and Research Center, will be finished by 2011. “Cooperation is essential to help Qatar become recognized as a hub for research, innovation and entrepreneurship,” he said. The Science Park is a truly 21st century conglomeration of new construction surrounding a massive convention center, seeking to lure biotech companies to join the likes of Shell and Conoco-Phillips as the first tenants. Companies such as GE Healthcare and Microsoft already have a presence in Qatar, and there is much activity in areas such as biobanking, proteomics, and digital imaging.

On the Move

One scientist-entrepreneur who is definitely moving to Qatar is John Hassard, co-founder of deltaDOT. He’s launching a subsidiary called QSP Proteomics, which will work on therapeutic/vaccine development and new technologies.  

Niels Porksen talked about Lilly’s move to establish new centers outside the US, including Singapore, India, China, and possibly Qatar, where there may be greater local expertise. “We’re willing to do less in Indianapolis and more in the rest of the world….. It’s a way to get us into the future,” he said, shrugging off the recent closure of three sites in Europe. A promising model is Lilly’s Chorus program, managed by 24 staff over the past 2.5 years, has validated 18 molecules in the clinic, at a fraction of the cost of regular clinical programs.

Phillipe Froguel, a geneticist working at Imperial College, London, said that diabetes offered some of the best examples of genomic medicine success, such as the high cure rate of neonatal diabetes. Froguel is conducting a genome-wide association study in Morocco to compare the susceptibility of an African/Arabian population with the genes identified so far in Europeans.

Cornell’s Ron Crystal is an expert in gene therapy but said the very side effects experienced using adenovirus vectors could prove beneficial in vaccine development. The genetic delivery of monoclonal antibodies could provide more persistent expression and more localized concentrations for certain tumors. A good candidate is Avastin, which causes GI perforation in a minority of patients. Another interesting application would be to bind nicotine (and other drugs) to an adenovirus to develop an anti-smoking vaccine.

Despite the enormous opportunities it presents, Qatar must overcome many hurdles to realize its ambitions. Manpower is severely limited, and an entire biomedical infrastructure must be built, including regulatory policies, animal facilities, and safety standards. Conference attendees cautioned that the country’s goals may prove too far-reaching. And there was precious little sign of collaboration with other Arab nations, which could prove a fatal mistake.

But Evans sees strong parallels between Qatar today and the UK in the early 1990s, when biomedical companies began to make a splash in the markets. It was important for Qatari scientists to receive incentives to train abroad before returning home, where their research and businesses can help the clinical community.  “I’m very pro Qatar,” said Evans. “Think selfishly for five years and globally thereafter.”

*BioQatar 2008 symposium, Doha, Qatar; 17-18 November 2008.

 

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