Specials: Making the most of a head start in stem cell research

Published online 13 November 2013

Mohammed Yahia

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As science attracts a renewed focus throughout several states in the Arab world, stem cell research has become a prominent area for regional scientists to concentrate their efforts.

An influencing factor was the issuing of religious decrees by Muslim scholars sanctioning the use of embryonic stem cells for basic research. Permission for such research has not been granted by the governing bodies in several Western states, making wealthy Gulf states, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, an attractive hub for researchers pursuing this line of research.

There are still many ethical issues to iron out, such as the debate over the cloning of human embryos for research. Meanwhile Arab countries still grapple with developing unified regional policies which will address shared challenges and risks. Several years after launching efforts to establish such policies, most countries still cannot agree on an ethical code to govern stem cell research. Disparate policies hamper successful collaboration.

However, these obstacles are not preventing researchers from pushing through with their endeavours – many are trying to quickly establish themselves as international pioneers in stem cell therapy, focusing on diseases particularly relevant in region. A small team in Egypt has already produced preliminary positive results in using stem cells to treat diabetes in rats. Qatar is also encouraging its younger researchers to become future leaders in the field.

But like most other research fields in the region, there is a dearth of opportunities for collaboration. Researchers in Lebanon, for example, struggle to attract funds while the richer Gulf countries have the capital but a lack of promising research to warrant funding.

In a Nature Middle East commentary, Samia Khoury and Ali Bazarbachi, researchers at the American University in Beirut's Medical Center, outline other obstacles for Arab states to address. Scientific leaders have an obligation to increase public awareness about widespread pseudo-science and convince people of the importance of genuine stem cell research and its potential benefits, thus generating a groundswell of public support for funding and open discussion.

It is clear that the religious decrees, or fatwas – which have created a tolerant environment for types of embryonic stem cell research that scientists might not get elsewhere – are not enough. A conducive legal realm may give Arab states a head start, but won't be enough to guarantee advancement.

Researchers in this part of the world still need to build up a strong science core, still lacking in many states, and must co-operate to streamline the research. There are some early positive signs through fledgling collaborations, increased funding and a few institutes setting up regulatory bodies. These small advances are encouraging, but the road is long.


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