Saudi Report




The work of the CEGMR


The Jeddah-based Center of Excellence in Genomic Medicine Research is one of Saudi Arabia’s leading genetic research and development centres. It was set up and is funded by the government to look at genetic diseases prevalent in the kingdom and develop biomarkers for these diseases. Callan Emery speaks to the vice director of the centre, Dr Adeel G. A. Chaudhary.




The Center of Excellence in Genomic Medicine Research (CEGMR) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was set up in mid 2007 by the Ministry Of Higher Education (MOHE) to focus on genomic research and development. The areas of focus are drawn from diseases that are particularly prevalent in the kingdom, such as breast cancer in females and colorectal cancer in males. Based on these criteria the CEGMR has established four areas of research, namely:

● Neurogenetic research
● Cancer genomic research
● Genomic screening research
● Stem cell research

The centre is housed in the King Fahad Medical Research Center, part of King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah. It is funded in large part by the MOHE and is managed by an executive committee of professors and staff appointed by the university.

Dr Adeel G. A. Chaudhary, PhD Molecular Genetics., Vice-director (Center for Genomic Research), Assistant Professor, Faculty of Applied Medical Sciences, explained that the CEGMR is the only research centre in Saudi Arabia directly funded and evaluated by the MOHE.

“Individual research laboratories do exist in other places since the Saudi Government is allocating substantial funds for research. In medical research, in particular, emphasis is being placed on genetics and molecular mechanisms of prevalent diseases,” he said. “This has prompted several universities and health institutes to establish research facilities. However, what really sets CEGMR apart is its openness to take on board all enthusiastic researchers, whether they are clinicians, scientists, trainees or students.

“It offers state of the art research facilities with high-end platforms and implements strict ethical research principles, including confidentiality, data secrecy and protection of investigators’ interests.”

Although the centre is funded by the MOHE, researchers are encouraged to apply for funding elsewhere and all CEGMR senior researchers have approved projects funded by the kingdom’s largest independent research funding body known as King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology (KACST), based in Riyadh.

Dr Chaudhary explained that the focus of the centre’s research programmes is determined by diseases that are prevalent in Saudi Arabia

“Based upon the national registry for prevalence of cancers in Saudi Arabia, breast cancer in females and colorectal cancer in males is considered the most common. Therefore, the genetic aspects of these cancers remain the focus of research at CEGMR, followed by thyroid cancer and other solid tumours. The genetics of blood cancers, mutation analysis and epigenetics of other common genetic diseases also takes place at CEGMR.”

Discussing the similarities and differences between four fields of research at CEGMR Dr Chaudhary noted that the common factor in all these fields was the cell itself. He said that analysis of intracellular and particularly intra-nuclear mechanisms serves as the basis of research at CEGMR. “Even the research tools are quite common for the first three groups – neurogenetics; cancer genomics; and genomic screening research.

“However, depending upon the objectives of the study, the types of samples being analysed, the experimental approach for each study could be quite different.”

Stem cell research at CEGMR is very new, Dr Chaudhary pointed out, adding that the stem cell research techniques are quite different from those deployed in genomic research.

“Stem cell research at GEGMR is geared more towards providing novel therapeutic approaches, understanding cell programming and cell delivery systems,” he said.

Neurogenetics

At CEGMR the research groups involved in neurogenetics are targeting diseases such as muscular dystrophies, muscular atrophies, congenital mental retardation and epilepsy. Some of the projects are looking into the fundamental mechanisms of these diseases, whereas others are focused more on high throughput mutation analysis. Prenatal screening strategies and the possibility of single-cell-based diagnosis is also under consideration.

Cancer genetics

Cancer genetics is the main focus of research at CEGMR due to the significance of these fatal diseases in the kingdom. In collaboration with oncologists the researchers are looking at the aggressiveness of cancers, patients’ response to therapy, relapse, metastasis and secondary cancers. Dr Chaudhary pointed out that these cancers can only be diagnosed and managed effectively if underlying genetic mechanisms are better understood and casespecific markers are investigated.

Research is focused on methylation of cancerous genes specific for different types of cancers followed by microarray analysis for gene expression.

“Research involving prognostic markers associated with pathological findings is also encouraged,” said Dr Chaudhary.

Genomic screening

Dr Chaudhary explained that the genomic screening group serves as a platform for various research groups interested in dealing with population genetics, some of which include Thalassemia, anaemia, G-6-PD deficiency, thrombophilia and congenital hearing loss.

“Regional samples are being collected for these diseases for objective research.”

Stem cell research

Stem cell research is a relatively new endeavour at CEGMR and the primary focus is on growing, harvesting and maintaining haematopoietic and mesenchymal stem cells.

Each of the permanent researchers at CEGMR has their own area of expertise, although they all have a thorough understanding of fundamental genetics and the techniques involved such as DNA sequencing, PCRs, real time PCR, RT-PCR, mutation analysis, microarray gene chip analysis and so on.

They are also expected to multitask, particularly when a collaborative research group is established.

“CEGMR researchers have the ability to be flexible in order to serve as many projects as possible. Generally, CEGMR doesn’t encourage the ideology of research as being property of a single person with limited objectives,” Dr Chaudhary emphasised.

Discussing collaboration initiatives Dr Chaudhary explained that as the centre is part of a university it is compelled to have intra-institutional collaborations “that not only have lengthy requirements, but are sometimes counterproductive for CEGMR.

“Therefore most of the technical and non-technical collaborations between CEGMR and international organisations are based upon mutual trust, common research interests and individual relations.

“Regional collaborations exist with various health institutes such as King Faisel Specialist Hospital & RC, Jeddah; National Guard hospitals in Riyadh and Jeddah, and KACST. International collaborations, on similar grounds, exist with Kings’ College, University College of London, Bristol University, Cambridge University, Turku University of Finland, Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar and many more.”

“Specifically, collaboration is on going in the fields of pre-implantation genetic screening with University College of London where one of our postgraduate students is working on this project. Similar collaboration is on going with King’s College, London in identifying novel genetic markers in leukemia patients,” Dr Chaudhary noted.

Translation

Although it is still early days for CEGMR, one of the centre’s main objectives is the translation of research findings into viable commercial products.

“Since several studies at CEGMR are geared towards the characterisation of mutations and their subsequent expression, the idea of personalised medication for patients screened for those mutations to differentiate between responders, nonresponders and drug toxicity opens an unlimited scope for commercialisation,” Dr Chaudhary said. “CEGMR is hopefully heading in that direction.

“Recently a team from the college of engineering joined hands with CEGMR. They have the expertise in developing high affinity nano-materials that could not only bind to specific cells, but also proteins, and could thus possibly be used as potential delivery systems,” Dr Chaudhary enthused.

“At this stage about 40% of our research is fundamental/biological and 60% is translational research where optimum methods for early diagnosis and prognosis are being established and utilised.”

As young as the centre is, Saudi patients are already beginning to reap the benefits of the research. CEGMR has a diagnostic wing – the 'Diagnostic Genomic Medicine Unit’ (DGMU) – where patients and high-risk families can benefit from the centre’s translational research, whether it be in cytogenetics or molecular biology. Pre-natal and post-natal investigations are offered for a spectrum of congenital and acquired diseases for which genetic markers can be analysed in a variety of samples including peripheral blood, amniotic fluid, chronic villus sample, cerebrospinal fluid, fresh tissue biopsy and paraffin embedded sections.

Publication


Since its establishment the centre has published more than 25 articles in national and international peer-reviewed journals.

“These articles are of high quality. However, now the CEGMR has set stringent requirements for publications including a minimum impact factor of 2 for uture publications since valuable data is being generated from large pool of samples,” Dy Chaudhary explained, adding, “Several manuscripts are well under preparation to be published in coming six months.” Outreach programmes

The CEGMR offers CME approved training courses in various areas of expertise. These courses are open to graduates, clinicians, bio-med company representatives and any medical laboratory personal interested in learning basic, yet essential, molecular and cytogenetics tools. Also, in collaboration with the college of science at KAU, CEGMR provides a well established platform for postgraduate students who are allowed to pursue their projects utilising the centre’s high-end equipment and research facilities, while keeping in view that the scope of their projects serve the goals of CEGMR research programmes.

“Currently 19 MSc students are benefiting from this academic arrangement,” Dr Chaudhary said. “This year CEGMR also opened its doors to distinguished high school students from international and national schools. During summer break, these students spend two weeks where they are given basic orientation about IT services at CEGMR followed by exposure to cytogenetics and molecular biology.”

Going forward

So what does the future hold for CEGMR? Dr Chaudhary replies: “During a relatively short span of time, CEGMR has grown into a large research-based organisation. Without doubt it has proven its ‘excellence’ at a regional level despite tremendous logistical issues and financial concerns. The dynamic leadership of Dr Mohammed Al Qahtani, director CEGMR, along with his team has made CEGMR an internationally recognised regional scientific hub. The centre has been evaluated twice by an independent team of international evaluators sent by MOHE and on both visits CEGMR has obtained a five-star rating. With an ever growing young and enthusiastic staff and expanding research facilities, CEGMR definitely has a bright future.

“Hopefully, with the approval of our technologically innovative research, a sub-centre will evolve geared towards hosting spin-off companies to manufacture and deliver research-based products and services. And along with continuous support from MOHE, and the president and vice-president of KAU, CEGMR is set to take long strides well into the next decade.”

On the Web:
CEGMR: http://cegmr.kau.edu.sa
CEGMR on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Jeddah- Saudi-Arabia/Center-of-Excellence-In- Genomic-Medicine-Research/338165036076

 

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ate of upload: 25th Sep 2010

                                  
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