Drug discovery hotspots: Focus on Qatar

DDW Editor Reece Armstrong takes a look at Qatar’s drug discovery and life sciences market, exploring how the country is utilising innovative technologies in its approach to healthcare.  

The Middle East represents one of the world’s most lucrative markets for pharmaceuticals. Along with Africa, the Middle East stands as fifth largest pharmaceutical market in the world1. 

Within this, Qatar is emerging as a country which is actively seeking to bolster its drug discovery and development sectors, through high levels of spending and investment into local research programmes.  

Qatar is a small country but faces many of the same healthcare problems that Western countries currently face. According to a report from Kuick Research2, sedentary lifestyles and fast-food consumption are causes for cardiovascular diseases, including obesity, diabetes, and in turn, increasing demand for drugs targeting these conditions.  

Qatar’s pharmaceutical and healthcare markets, whilst receiving significant government attention, are still within their beginnings. A low number of local pharmaceutical companies means the company is dependent on the import of medicines, but also provides opportunities for companies wanting to operate within the country.  

As it stands, Qatar’s pharmaceutical market was the 10th largest out of 13 markets in the Middle East, according to a report by the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises3. By 2025, it’s estimated that Qatar’s drug market will reach a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.9% and will be valued just over $1 billion4 

Whilst Qatar still has a long way to go before it reaches the proverbial glass ceiling for its pharmaceutical market, the country’s current underdeveloped industry, its reliance on imports and the lack of local infrastructure for manufacturing, mean it is facing a range of market challenges. According to the report by the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises, pressures include a growing demand for medical treatments, a rising burden of lifestyle diseases, a need for more affordable drugs and the need for a wider range of treatment options.  

Proactive research initiatives

Although it is facing the same pressures that many countries looking to develop their pharmaceutical markets would be, Qatar still has a number of local research organisations and institutes that show just how proactive research in the region can be – especially projects geared towards advanced/current science such as genomics and personalised medicine. https://en.sev.org.gr/ 

Qatar Genome Programme

For instance, the Qatar Genome Programme (QGP) is a population-based project which aims to utilise large databases combining whole genome sequencing and other omics data to develop a precision medicine and population health approach to improve health outcomes.   

Last year saw scientists at the QGP team up with clinicians at Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) to use findings from a study exploring hereditary mutations in the Qatari population, to inform the current standard of care in the country.  

Understanding the cancer risk of entire populations could help the country invest in measures that reduce the risk of people developing the disease in the future. It also fits with the country’s preventative health approach that it established in its 2017-2022 Public Health Strategy5. 

Qatar Biobank

Dr Nahla Al Afifi is Director of Qatar Biobankspoke to DDW about the need for the healthcare industry in Qatar to adjust its infrastructure if it can facilitate its vision of precision health.  

“There are many components of the health system infrastructure that need to adapt to enable and accommodate precision medicine, including data privacy regulations and clinical informatics. One of the fundamental components that is essential for developing the necessary knowledge for precision medicine and directing precision clinical decisions, is the provision of human biological samples and the relevant annotating data for both the research and clinical analysis,” Dr Al Afifi says.  

Indeed, the Qatar Biobank is a good example of facilitating this change. The organisation’s biobanking practices, are “capable of producing the biological samples and data that precision medicine relies upon in both the research and clinical phases,” Dr Al Afifi told DDW.  

Established in 2012 by the Qatar Foundation in collaboration with the Ministry of Public Health and Hamad Medical Corporation, the idea behind Qatar Biobank was to “empower medical research towards the discovery and development of novel healthcare interventions, specifically in the field of precision medicine,” Dr Al Afifi says.  

A specific example of this, Dr Al Afifi tells us, is through the “deep longitudinal profiling of more than 36,000 participants,” which gives Qatar Biobank access to evidence which can assess the risk of disease in individual participants and can help guide prevention strategies.  

For instance, Dr Al Afifi mentions how in terms of detecting early preclinical conditions, Qatar Biobank was able to find that 20% of its participants are prediabetics, and 25% are pre-hypertensive, meaning they can understand how to change lifestyle aspects such as diet and exercise to stop the diseases developing.  

Modern biobanking has grown of the last years and it became an essential part of biomedical research, predictive, preventive and personalised medicine,” Dr Al Afifi says. 

As such, Qatar Biobank has emerged within this modernisation to act as a focal point for the country’s goal in preventive and personalised healthcare. Indeed a distinct focus for Qatar’s national healthcare plan, as stated in its Public Health Strategy, is an accountability on data collection, analysis and reporting which are needed to assess the health of the population. One of the ways the country is targeting this is through the collaboration between health and non-health partners to develop a centralised data repository that can be used to survey the health of the population. 

Qatar Biobank could be an essential partner in this. Dr Al Afifi tells DDW how Qatar Biobank is working with the country’s national healthcare system by Cerner to “exchange information either by receiving medical data or by refer participants to the Hamad General Hospital and Primary Healthcare Centers.”

Qatar Computing Research Institute

This focus on genomics is something that extends to the Qatar Computing Research Institute, another initiative that is working to “help build Qatar’s innovation and technology capacity. It is focused on tackling large-scale computing challenges that address national priorities for growth and development,” says Dr Mohamad Saad a research scientist at the QCRI. 

These challenges extend to healthcare as well and given Qatar’s focus on preventative healthcare approaches, it’s no surprise that the QCRI is engaged in this area as well and is focused on tackling diseases that represent a particular burden within the country.  

In the health domain, QCRI’s research has been focusing on important areas such as genomics and omics, wearable and digital health, and imaging. Artificial intelligence (AI) is being used in all these areas to provide efficient modelling of the large amount of data that are being produced within each field.” 

Current, QCRI is supporting healthcare stakeholders by developing software tools that can be embedded within systems to support personalised healthcare goals. Indeed, QCRI is currently working with other organisations in Qatar including Qatar Biobank, to further research and develop data sets that contain whole genome sequences.  

“Current work at QCRI focuses on developing polygenic risk scores for complex diseases and traits using local Qatari data. This builds on the previous work and insights we gained through studying coronary heart disease data. More research work focuses on dissecting the genetic architecture of other diseases such atrial fibrillation and arrhythmia,” Dr Saad says. 

One specific example sees QCRI applying pharmacogenomics to a coronary heart disease cohort. The aim for this study is to understand how genetic biomarkers respond to common cardiovascular drugs such as warfarin and clopidogrel 

“We want to study the frequency of these biomarkers within the disease and control groups, which may potentially lead to clinical implementation by providing targeted intervention,” Dr Saad adds.

AI and drug development

But how does all of this extend to drug development? Well, QCRI is exploring how AI can help in predicting which drugs can tackle certain diseases in a more effective manner. 

“AI and digital tools can be used to analyse drugs at the molecular level and can offer advantages at different stages of drug development, such as drug screening and drug designing,” Dr Saad explains

He goes on to discuss how AI is able to reduce the time it takes to discovery a drug from five years to less than one year. QCRI has now developed an AI model to predict the efficacy of several drugs for treating Covid-19.  

One of the compounds predicted by our AI model for being most effective against SARS-CoV-2 has received FDA fast track designation for the potential treatment of Covid-19. Innovation Pharma’s Brilacidin was ranked in the top three percent of potential drugs to bind to key coronavirus proteins (PL-Pro, 3CL-Pro, and Spike) to inhibit replication. This shows that AI has a huge potential in the field of drug repurposing, not only for viral infections but for personalised medicine as well as existing diseases such as cancer,” Dr Saad says about the QCRI’s work.  

Challenges ahead 

Whilst Qatar is ensuring it has the technological expertise and capabilities available to tackle current and emerging healthcare challenges, the country still has a long way to go in establishing its pharmaceutical research and development capabilities.  

Currently, the country’s reliance on pharmaceutical imports, which account for 97% of Qatar’s medicine use, mean that the nation has been susceptible to fluctuating drug prices, inflation, and exchange rates. The government has sought to address issues of high pricing for drugs, and has attempted a range of measures, including price liberalisation laws and a cap on the prices of 5,000 medicines which prohibits distributors and retailers from making over 10% profit on drug sales.6 

Qatar is focused on the betterment of healthcare as a nation and is prioristising the development of innovative technologies and investment in its healthcare sector. However, the report from the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises warns that whilst its pharmaceutical sector will remain a small and attractive sector, drug production through manufacturing will remain limited. As it stands, with these limits, the country’s local pharmaceutical sector will remain minimal and Qatar will still be reliant on its pharmaceutical imports for some time in the future.  

Qatar has some exciting research initiatives and there’s no doubt that its focus on innovative technologies makes sense given the possibilities things like AI and genomics offer healthcare. In terms of drug discovery, Qatar’s limited capabilities in this sector mean that research coming out of the country will be geared more towards personalised healthcare approaches, the use of AI and repurposed drugs through genomic studies.  

 References  

  1. https://pharmaboardroom.com/articles/iqvia-mea-pharma-market-to-reach-usd-47-billion-in-2022-gileads-sales-skyrocketing/ 
  2. https://www.biospace.com/article/qatar-pharmaceutical-market-insight-2028/   
  3. https://www.sev.org.gr/Uploads/Documents/53767/Qatar_Pharmaceuticals_2021.pdf  
  4. https://www.sev.org.gr/Uploads/Documents/53767/Qatar_Pharmaceuticals_2021.pdf 
  5. https://extranet.who.int/ncdccs/Data/QAT_B3_QPHS%202017-2022.pdf     
  6. https://www.sev.org.gr/Uploads/Documents/53767/Qatar_Pharmaceuticals_2021.pdf  

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