Resources vs expertise: Search for the right research culture

Published online 13 November 2013

Research centres in the Middle East are not at the cutting edge of stem cell technology and individual scientists are fighting to keep up with their international peers.

Andrew Bossone

© Science Picture Co / Alamy

Despite the strong ambition of many Middle Eastern states to become important world players in stem cell research, researchers are thwarted by many hindrances. A lack of funding, a shortage of experience and gaps in regional collaboration are holding scientists back.

Access to vital funding is being jeopardized by a lack of researchers with experience of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The technology behind iPS cells – which reprogrammes typical adult stem cells into pluripotent cells similar to embryonic stem cells – is expensive, but funders prefer to support researchers with experience in the field because of ethical concerns about embryonic stem cells.

In response, both the American University of Beirut (AUB) and Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q) are establishing iPS cells laboratories to attract and build on the necessary experience.

Wassim Abou Kheir, an assistant professor in the department of anatomy, cell biology and physiological sciences at AUB, says funding is drying up for embryonic stem cell research. "We're lagging in iPS; every other [stem cell research] lab is doing it, and the funding is getting tight," he says.

AUB Scientists are moving slowly toward research with human iPS cells, but waiting on approval from the university's internal review board and Lebanese government authorities is delaying their work. Bureaucracy can also delay for months the arrival of imported materials needed for approved experiments.

But that hasn't deterred them from plans to proceed with stem cell research. Abou Kheir is using iPS cells to study widespread genetic disorders, such as thalassaemia, in samples from Lebanese consanguineous families.


We are focusing on meetings, agreements, and buying expensive instruments, but we are not conducting the best science.

He and colleague Marwan Sabban have been working with Ronald McKay of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development at Johns Hopkins University. McKay is also on the external advisory board for AUB's neuroscience institute, a connection which Sabban described as an example of how to "forge ties with good scientists and exchange expertise."

But choosing the right partners can be fraught. According to the scientists, not every collaboration is beneficial for all the partners involved. Sabban says that some scientists seek collaborations only to use the tissue resources for their work and take credit for the results. "I don't want to do this kind of work. This isn't good for Lebanon and it's not good for scientists in Lebanon," he says.

However, sometimes a lack of good local researchers means it is necessary to look further afield, according to Arash Rafii, director of the stem cell and microenvironment laboratory at WCMC-Q. He says researchers at institutions in Qatar seek help from abroad because the country has few scientists, despite an abundance of resources.

And despite approaches from regional researchers to collaborate, Rafii says most of their work was not promising. It is difficult to give up current collaborations with Western cohorts, he says, if a regional one cannot advance a study. There are also hardly any platforms for local researchers to interact. "We don't really have local conferences. We go to international conferences so we get integrated into the international community."

Chaker Adra, who recently left the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Saudi Arabia, argues the problem has deeper roots. "We are focusing on meetings, agreements, and buying expensive instruments, but we are not conducting the best science," Adra says.

He blames a lack of a "team spirit" among Arab scientists as the main reason for the lack of collaboration. He says many are only concerned with getting work published so they focus on collaborating with Western peers.

The result, says Sabban, is that a research culture of fails to take hold in the Gulf countries that are trying to become centers for science, while countries like Lebanon, which have researchers – but lack financial might – don't get enough support for their projects.

Sabban contends that the right conditions would give local scientists an opportunity for success. He draws an analogy: As you would isolate stem cells in the right "microenvironment" so they behave as they would in a specific organ of the body, similarly, if scientists have the right conditions and resources, they may flourish and make breakthroughs.