We live in a unique time when there is a real opportunity to extend our lives for the first time in human history. Although we can still not elude death, we have learned to forestall it: science has improved life expectancy significantly, initially through vaccines and then with new drugs to tackle chronic conditions.
In 2021, Saudi Arabia’s Hevolution Foundation announced plans to spend up to $1 billion a year supporting basic research on the biology of aging and how drugs might slow down.
Its neighbor, the UAE, launched a national strategy to map the DNA of every Emirati to provide personalized medical care for every citizen, which in the future can produce, design, and manufacture ground-breaking treatments, including cancer and diabetes, locally.
The region has eyed biotech as a potential growth industry for over a decade.
In the last few years, regulators and investors have been investing in building public-private partnerships with big pharma and emerging biotechs, while governments in the region are prioritizing research into diseases, increasing life span, and developing drugs. Biopharma players are creating innovative manufacturing capabilities.
Local drug makers are adding new innovative treatments – from high-prevalence lifestyle diseases to rare genetic disorders and cancers – to their local production capability, and agreements are signed with top-tier global pharma partners.
The approach has paid off. The region’s biotech and life sciences industry is reaching new highs as an ecosystem is being built.
PROACTIVE PREVENTIVE HEALTHCARE
“Pharma and life sciences came to the forefront in the Middle East during the pandemic when supply chains got disrupted, and life-saving medication was unavailable, putting millions of lives at risk,” says Abbas Berdi, Partner, Deals Strategy & Operations, PwC Middle East. “That was a key trigger for regional governments to embed supply chain resilience and drug supply security as part of their national agendas.”
According to Berdi, the key objective is proactive preventive healthcare rather than disease fighting. And this attribute is particularly helpful for the region where diabetes and heart diseases are a massive burden on the healthcare operators resulting in high hospital admission rates.
UAE’s big biotech hub, Abu Dhabi, beckons global pharma companies and the most promising biotech startups with their well-bred gene pools of talent and investors.
“The UAE government has invested in infrastructure, research centers, and universities to promote innovation in the sector,” says Kareem Shahin, Chief Business Officer of G42 Healthcare, an Abu Dhabi-based leading health tech company. “The life science ecosystem has public and private organizations working together to drive innovation, research & development, and therapeutics manufacturing.”
INVESTMENT IN HEALTHCARE
Recent figures show that the biotechnology sector in the region is proliferating. According to a report by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, the biotechnology market in the region is expected to reach $2.6 million by 2028, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia accounting for the largest share of the market.
In the 2023 federal budget, the UAE allocated $1.3 billion for healthcare and community protection.
“The country is already a regional leader in attracting FDI in the biotechnology sector,” says Marwan Abdulaziz Janahi, Senior Vice President of Dubai Science Park.
“Our community promotes Dubai as a global destination for medical tourism, healthcare excellence, and innovation with strategic customers such as Pfizer, Insulet, and Bayer,” adds Janahi. “The district is home to purpose-built R&D centers by Firmenich, Himalaya Wellness, and soon, Jotun.”
AstraZeneca has announced plans to build offices at Dubai Science Park, adding to a community of industry leaders, such as GE Healthcare, Sobi, and Bio-Rad. Zimmer Biomet Holdings also has an innovation hub there.
According to experts, one of the most significant factors driving investment in biotechnology in the region is the rise in chronic diseases.
“Chronic diseases and the need for improved healthcare services in the MENA region have created a significant opportunity for investment in biotechnology,” says Shahin.
The prevalence of chronic diseases has been steadily increasing due to a range of factors, including an aging population, urbanization, and changes in lifestyle and diet, putting a significant burden on healthcare systems.
“According to a study, healthcare spending in the region has been rising rapidly, but the quality of care remains low, with limited access to essential services and a shortage of skilled healthcare professionals. This has led to a growing demand for new and innovative healthcare solutions, including biotechnology,” says Shahin.
In response to this need, several countries in the region have launched population health programs to improve healthcare outcomes and reduce the burden of chronic diseases.
For example, Saudi Arabia is making significant investments in biotech infrastructure, research and development, and talent acquisition and is home to the King Abdullah International Medical Research Center, which conducts cutting-edge research in genomics, immunology, and cancer.
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, established in 2009, is a hub for scientific and technological education and research, with its efforts in research and commercialization, particularly in biotechnology, serving as a critical driver of the kingdom’s economic diversification.
The kingdom has launched the National Transformation Program, which includes a range of initiatives focused on improving healthcare services, including establishing new medical cities.
According to experts, the region is in a position to jump toward innovative personalized drugs targeted to specific genetic biomarkers.
“It is emerging as a leader in personalized and preventive medicine, with countries like the UAE investing heavily in genomics research and initiatives,” says Shahin.
The UAE’s Emirati Genome Program, for example, aims to map the genetic makeup of the UAE population and develop personalized healthcare solutions based on this data. “It has created the world’s first de novo Emirati reference genome that now enables us to predict, prevent, and effectively treat genetic and chronic diseases among both present and future generations while paving the way for further medical research,” adds Shahin.
Advances in genomics and precision medicine are opening up new opportunities for personalized medicine, while the development of targeted therapies and personalized treatment plans are helping to improve patient outcomes and reduce healthcare costs.
While the region’s personalized medicine market is expected to reach $2.51 billion by 2023, the genomics market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.3% between 2020 and 2025, driven by increased investment in genomics research and rising demand for personalized medicine.
According to Berdi, the region has seen unparalleled growth in the pharma sector and has set itself to be a unique example of how investment in capabilities and innovation can help boost economies.
“The region currently imports approximately 70-80% of its drugs resulting in an outflow of capital and funds, eventually impacting the overall trade balance. Sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) are the driving forces behind the transformation of the healthcare sector in the region,” adds Berdi.
The recent collaboration between Mubadala Healthcare and G42 to launch M42, a tech-enabled, integrated healthcare company, exemplifies how the region is committed to developing integrated healthcare technology powerhouses.
“We are seeing a similar trend of investing in personalized medicine from other SWFs such as ADQ in UAE and PIF in Saudi Arabia,” adds Berdi.
PARTNERSHIPS AND CO-DEVELOPMENTS
The kingdom and UAE currently lead the healthcare sector in the region and are starting to focus on manufacturing, clinical trial infrastructure, research organizations, and medical science research.
Abu Dhabi has partnered with numerous global pharma companies to develop national competencies and clinical research capabilities.
G42 Healthcare is working with AstraZeneca to expand their collaboration into the domains of diagnostics and clinical research, and it launched the first Personalized Precision Medicine Program for oncology in the region in collaboration with Mubadala Health, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, NYU Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, and Department of Health.
Meanwhile, Insilico Medicine announced the opening of the Insilico Medicine Generative AI and Quantum Computing Research and Development Centre in Abu Dhabi, the region’s largest AI-powered biotechnology research center.
“In the MENA region, there are numerous examples of partnerships. For instance, in 2017, the UAE and the Saudi Arabian government announced a joint venture to develop a network of hospitals and clinics across the two countries. This partnership aims to provide high-quality and increased access to healthcare services to citizens and residents of both countries,” says Shahin.
These partnerships boost the local healthcare innovation ecosystem, developing new technologies. “Some investments are long-term in nature that help bring technology and capabilities to the region, fueling the innovation in the healthcare system for the future,” says Berdi.
Now all eyes are on the players that will sit at the forefront of the wave of biotech startups considering a permanent Middle East address. In the trenches, entrepreneurs are trying to take advantage of the region’s emerging assets.
Pushing at the boundaries of the region’s biotech has its challenges, but there’s enough of a network to meet people, fundraise, look for clinical trial consultants, and find patent attorneys who deal with early-stage companies.
Incubator in5 is facilitating entrepreneurship and investments for science-based startups, such as Dardoc, a mobile platform to deliver healthcare at home, social healthcare tracking platform RelphaCarem and Detectiome, which offers AI-enabled multi-detection cancer biopsy tests.
Saudi Arabia-based biotechnology and healthcare investment company Dammam Valley has launched a biotech startups program in partnership with Saudi Aramco, Future Investment Initiative Institute, and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Investment and Ministry of Industry to encourage the establishment of more biotechnology startups in the kingdom, foster ties with other global startups, and encourage local talent pool towards tackling issues in the biotechnology ecosystem.
The region’s biotech hotspots are bolstered by more capital and by the influence of large pharmaceutical companies that can help feed talent into the startup world.
CREATING BIO CLUSTER
The ultimate aim, says Berdi, is to create a bio cluster that impactfully disrupts the global healthcare system.
“It’s important to understand that the success of a life sciences cluster is based on creating a self-sustaining ecosystem. Some of the most successful bio-clusters, such as Boston, Cambridge, and Singapore, have one thing in common – R&D hubs at the core of their ecosystem. Their commitment to work closely with research universities to fuel downstream pharma life sciences manufacturing components helps attract early-stage funding from biotech venture capital funds and government grants.”
Investment in developing clinical trial and testing facilities is also crucial for creating these hubs, and UAE is setting itself apart in the region by forming clinical trial organizations within M42. Investing in omics, bioinformatics, and digital health will continue to drive the region’s healthcare agenda.
“Investment in building local capabilities and attracting global investors will place the region in the forefront of healthcare transformation, positively impacting people’s lives,” says Berdi.
Into this gap have stepped governments making agreements with numerous global pharma companies to develop national competencies and clinical research capabilities and advance early clinical trial and drug development programs to ensure the region has a homegrown supply of drugs while diversifying the economy.
“With the potential for economic growth and improved healthcare outcomes, it is no surprise that the biotechnology sector in the Middle East is attracting increasing attention and investment,” says Shahin.
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