Going for the hard cell

Dubiotech, the city’s upcoming research park, has yet to take a concrete position on various legal and ethical issues, including stem cell research and intellectual property protection. But executive director, Dr. Abdulqader Al Khayat, believes the venture will be a huge step forward for the UAE in next generation biotechnology and healthcare research. Richard Agnew reports.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  March 27, 2005

Going for the hard cell|~|DR-AL-KHAYAT-200.jpg|~||~|DR. ABDULQADER AL KHAYAT is a details man. Having completed degrees in forensics, biology and criminal science, he cut his teeth in the 1980s analysing trace evidence at crime scenes for Dubai Police. The softly-spoken Emirati then quickly worked his way up to become director general of the force’s general department of forensic administration, and is now a renowned expert in DNA analysis, fingerprinting, and investigations into murders, sexual assaults and disasters. “When I graduated from university, I heard that Dubai Police were setting up a crime lab and looking for graduates,” he explains. “I thought that I’d give it a try, and in a couple of weeks, I’d fallen in love with it — it was very exciting and there were always new things happening,” he adds. Now, however, Al Khayat faces a completely different kind of challenge, having been placed at the helm of the latest Dubai mega-project, the US$400 million research and development park, DuBiotech. At the moment, the venture is being run by a handful of people in an office within Dubai’s education cluster, Knowledge Village, but will provide a range of state-of-the-art research facilities for life sciences firms when it opens in early 2006. “It’s still at the very initial stages,” says Al Khayat. “We only announced it a month ago and we are still developing our strategy and fine-tuning a master-plan that will suit our requirements and those of our customers. It’s more challenging [for me] because I had built up experience, but here I have to start with a new, big picture. But there are similarities in the roles — I have a bio-technology background, which is a good basis, and I’m used to dealing with different tasks at the same time,” he adds. This is good, because Al Khayat is currently focusing on not only setting up the over a 300-hectare park, but also on filling it. To lure global companies, DuBiotech plans to offer various financial incentives, including zero tax, 100% foreign ownership and full repatriation of profits. A parallel Foundation for Research and Innovation has also been set up to channel UAE government funding into joint ventures, focusing on areas such as medical genetics, stem cell research and pharmaceutical R&D. But with similar investments being planned at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the project being still at its early stages, Al Khayat admits that it may take time to win potential customers over. “These kind of deals can take up to seven to 11 months to come up with — we go through a lot of tedious, hard work,” he says. “But we have 120-plus companies that showed interest after the announcement — some are already licenced and we are dealing with three or four of them [at a time],” he adds. Observers say that one of the main challenges DuBiotech will face is to create a robust legal framework that will guarantee research companies’ intellectual property. Biotechnology patents are a multi-billion dollar industry, but Al Khayat accepts that the UAE’s lack of R&D activity so far means that its rules will need to be tightened. The venture is working with the UAE Ministry of Finance and Industry and other countries to build its capabilities up, but says it still has some way to go. “One of the issues that companies are most interested in is patent law,” Al Khayat explains. “This is a very sensitive issue, especially in biotechnology as it is so new. There [was] no point in the government going into details of different kinds of IP when no industry [existed]. This kind of [activity] is mainly related to countries which are capitalising on R&D — they have this in their favour. With this project we have make it easier to formalise IP issues and enforce them,” he adds. Another priority for Al Khayat over the coming months will be to develop policies and common standards that companies will have to adhere to, particularly in the area of health and safety. “Most regulations are already there but we have to try and fill in the gaps for this type of project,” he says. “There are certain policies that we need to advance in terms of safety, health and waste management. There’s a lot of detail that [concerns] lab design and the quality of the labs — they require certain conditions. We have already started conversing with several organisations and governmental bodies and I think that we are well able to establish [common standards] this year,” he adds. As regulations have yet to be drawn up and DuBiotech has yet to prepare ethical rules surrounding research, some are worried that the free zone will provide a haven for firms that have found their activities blocked in other countries. But Al Khayat says that companies looking to locate in the park will have to go through “an extensive screening process” before being allowed in. “We’re not going to allow any kind of research — [companies] will be doing research that has been approved internationally,” he says. One area that DuBiotech has already seen some success in attracting interest is stem cell research. Shortly after the park was announced, Mohammed Ali Alabbar, the director general of the Dubai Department of Economic Development, signed an agreement to kick-start two new projects — Dubai Stem Cell Technologies (DSCTi) and the Dubai Centre for Robotic Surgery (DCRS). His intention to open various stem cell centres comes hand-in-hand with plans to use cord-blood transplantation as a key treatment for genetic diseases in the Middle East, as the UAE's government moves to raise the quality of tertiary care in the country. DSCTi, which will be headed by Dr. Susan Lim, a stem cell research expert from Singapore, says it will derive differentiated cell types primarily from Adult Stem Cells for use in cell replacement therapies, while building up its own patents and intellectual property portfolio by 2009. But with stem cell research on foetuses having prompted protests from religious groups in the US, how far will DuBiotech let R&D companies go? “In general, our policy is that we will [allow] research that has been recognised in the scientific community internationally,” says Al Khayat. “The main issue with embryonic stem cell research, as you know, has been in the US. The US prohibits using public money on this. Most of the issues [are] related to certain religious aspects [but] what I understand from Muslim scholars is that the foetus is considered a foetus after 120 days, whereas for Catholics it is straight after conception. We haven’t [finalised our position] yet,” he adds, however. The other priority, Al Khayat says, is to ensure the park brings benefits to the UAE and the region’s society and economy as a whole. A steering committee of 10 regional experts has already been formed which will oversee the free zone’s research centre and decide which directions R&D should be headed in, as well as how it can generate new investment and jobs. And with diabetes and cancer posing an increasing risk, Al Khayat says it could also, of course, provide numerous benefits for the UAE’s overall health. DCSTi, for example, has already set out its intention to use stem cells to yield insulin-producing cells to cure diabetes, as well as combating central nervous system disorders such as Lou Gehrig’s and Alzheimer’s and treating injuries and diseases that afflict the aged. “The overall aim of DuBiotech is to gather together different industries that will generate benefits for society and the economy,” says Al Khayat. “The steering committee will advise on the areas that are needed for the UAE, but so far, we mainly see them [as being] related to health and certain diseases that related to the population here. Diabetes in one of the main areas we will be looking into. Cancer is also very prominent here and that will be a major part of our focus,” he adds. ||**||

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