Inspiring biomedical research

Published online 11 March 2010

Mohammed Yahia

Javaid I. Sheikh, permanent dean at WCMC-Q
Javaid I. Sheikh, permanent dean at WCMC-Q

Sheikha Moza, who is the wife of the Emir of Qatar, has a clear vision that to revitalize her country, she needs to start with education. Her flagship project to achieve that is Education City, which houses several offshore campuses of American universities, including Texas A&M University and Georgetown University.

However, when Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC) came on board to become the first American medical college in the region, Qatar started to become a regional leader in health-care services. This was further fortified with the announcement of the first international level hospital and biomedical research centre in the region, the Sidra Medical and Research Centre, which will be completed in 2012.

WCMC in Qatar (WCMC-Q) has already graduated several doctors, and is currently focusing on increasing its research capacity. Javaid I. Sheikh, who is permanent dean of the institute, has a vision to inspire a research culture in the country to make WCMC-Q a centre of excellence in biomedical research that is on a par with any in the West.

Qatar and the region have their own set of challenges, however, which differ greatly from those in the United States, for example. Can WCMC-Q lead this small country to become one of the most important health-research centres in the world? Sheikh discusses this in an interview with Nature Middle East.

Why was Qatar chosen for WCMC in the Middle East?

At this time, Qatar has what we believe to be a very enlightened leadership, and a very strong commitment all the way to the top to promote higher education here. They approached Will Cornell a while back through a couple of congress people who came in from New York. After a series of meetings, it was determined by the leadership of Weill Cornell that there was a very strong commitment, and resources to back that commitment, and that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to establish a medical institution in this region.

On what basis is it decided what science the researchers here will be working on?

It has been decided that it will be based on the local needs. So, for example, we are rolling out, as we speak, a very broad-based diabetes-research programme. Diabetes is very common in this region. By broad based we mean a 'cradle-to-grave' type of diabetes-research programme. This focuses on subjects ranging from pregnant women and their babies all the way to older people with diabetes complications, for example.

We will be doing the same thing with metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disorders. Those are the most common diseases, and that's what we are focusing on. We do have expertise in New York in other areas, like cancer and infectious diseases. Some of those will be addressed as the need arises, but we are going to start with the most common illnesses here. When you say local does that mean Qatar or the region as a whole? We have to take Qatar's needs as number one, the region as number two and then the general benefit of science as number three, in that order.

There are types of research that have limitations on them in certain regions, such as stem-cell research in the United States. Are these some of the issues you will be looking into? Is this one of the things you want to use to attract researchers from around the world?

There are various ways in which we attract researchers from around the world, but let me answer your question first. We have sought advice and consultation from Islamic scholars and so far we know there are no restrictions to stem-cell research that we are aware of, so we will be working hand-in-glove with them.

Getting back to the other issue that you mentioned of whether this is the only reason people might be attracted, that is actually not the only reason — it is one of many. Another reason is that it is a very unique opportunity: it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is not something that happens every day. So, as I said earlier, this is really a historic opportunity. In branch campuses, with people working together with a lot of excitement, you are creating history opposed to just being an established system, in which there are thousands like your self. So here you are making a mark, you are making a difference. That is why people will be attracted. I would think, so far, that we have attracted people who are adventurous, people who are pioneers, people who are leaders. Then we will get more run-of-the-mill scientists.

It is not for everyone, we recognize that. It is, compared with established systems, a little more risky. Of course, every start-up system is. But that's what we want. We want people who recognize that, but view it as a positive aspect. Who look at the glass as half full as opposed to thinking "oh my God what's going to happen if this doesn't go well?" What's going to happen if I die tomorrow? This is the kind of thing you can never ask, so you've just got to do it.

Do you think the religious nature of Qatar might be a problem for science research?

People can be religious, and that can be their personal set of beliefs. The way this Education City has been set up is with a very clear mandate, to pursue knowledge, to create new knowledge, to create research. I don't see any problem with it religiously.

There is a fear that when you have offshore campuses, the end result is that the top-tier researchers will stay in New York, while the second-grade or third-grade researchers will be willing to travel to the new campus. So you are not really capturing the essence of what is so good about WCMC.

But we are not only capturing people from WCMC. Only very few of our faculty are from WCMC. We attract people from all over the world. Our goal is to establish local capacity here. This is not meant to be just a satellite of WCMC in New York. WCMC in New York is very strongly supportive of us because they are the mother campus, but they recognize that we are producing local capacity – with their help. It is not going to be totally dependent on them only.

How can WCMC-Q take a role in promoting more basic research in the region?

With time it will come. First steps first. First we want to establish a reasonable centre of excellence in biomedical research, and we are well on our way. It is going to take a few years. Once you have established your track record and you are a shining example, this will inspire other institutions in the region. There is no question in my mind. That is how it works all over the world. But it takes a while. It is not going to happen overnight. One has to be patient. One has to demonstrate that it can work, and one has to inspire younger generations. And then, once you inspire them, other countries and institutions will start emulating you, which is the best form of flattery, right?

It is going to happen. If we do our job, if we do what we think we can do here and we want to do here, then it will inspire similar institutions following the example.

In long-established research centres in the West, a culture of research has been created over many years. You bring your students into this culture and they are being affected by that. But the truth is that research culture is not present in the Middle East. So, in a way, a lot of the new universities springing up are trying to jump-start that. Will that work? Can you create this culture in a much smaller time frame?

Turn back the clock to 10 years ago. Weill Cornell wanted to establish a medical school here. As far as I know — I was not here, but I was told — the Weill Cornell leadership was told very clearly by the 'powers that be' all over the world that there is no medical college in Qatar, how can you do that? There is no medical college in the region that gives an American degree, how can you do that? Well, it has happened right?

The culture of research does not exist, just like you said, but we have to promote it and produce it. With time it will happen. Does it exist now? No of course not, but if it can be created in the West it can be created here.

It won't take the same amount of time it took the West because the world is different now. The technology that is available all over the world now was not available even 5 years ago. Now, we have managed to map the date palm genome. We have state-of-the-art second-generation genomic machines that can sequence now. You could not do that 5 years ago. So the technology is there, which is very readily transferable. That was not possible before, and that is why it took such a long time.

So you need resources, technology and very good committed scientists, and we actually have all three of those now.

In a relatively short period of time, Singapore was able to transform itself into an important scientific centre in the world. Do you think the Singaporean experience can be recreated here in Qatar?

Well, there are regional differences again. Qatar wants to chalk out its own territory. It wants to be its own unique example. As far as I know, her highness [Sheikha Moza, wife of the Emir of Qatar and founder of Education City where WCMC-Q is located] hasa very clear vision. We do not want to emulate any other country or region, we want to do it in our own way. Wherever there are examples that we can learn from, we will. So Qatar will be Qatar of the Arabian Gulf. It is not going to be Singapore or Hong Kong.

WCMC-Q signed a partnership with Sidra, which should be completed by 2012. What will that partnership bring both parties?

It will bring a whole lot to both sides. So Sidra comes on board as the first truly modern academic health-care system in this whole region, in the American style, while WCMC-Q is already established and brings that particular academic and scientific culture.

Between the two of them, both sides will have the opportunity to recruit. For example, Sidra has a lot of researchers, there will be more than 300 physicians and most of them will be faculty members at WCMC-Q. They will be training students, doing the research and seeing patients. So the patients benefit because you have state-of-the-art health care being delivered by people who are very well trained, and good enough to be faculty members. The physicians benefit because they have a chance to do world-class research and academic work in this region. Finally, the students benefit because they are being trained by wonderful faculty members with the same level of expertise that you have in the West. So everybody wins.

When you look at the science boom that is starting to take place in the region, do you think this will stop — or even reverse — the brain drain here?

That is ultimately the hope, that there will be more people coming back. I am sitting here as an example. There are many like me here and we think this trend will continue and expand.

What made the United States great is this wonderful policy to have immigration open to the best possible people from all over the world. Qatar is pursuing the same policy. So Sidra and WCMC-Q are just two of many examples of this policy.