Said Ismail Qatar Genome ProgrammeQatar is bringing precision medicine to their population and setting a global example. Currently in its pilot phase with 4,000 genomes sequenced, the Qatar Genome Programme (QGP) is an ambitious initiative to deliver the benefits of precision medicine to the region while simultaneously identifying different gene variations that are unique to the region. Overseeing this project is Said Ismail, Programme Manager for the QGP, bringing 20 years’ experience in molecular biology to bear on this unique population-scale effort.

Said spoke to Carl Smith for an interview in the latest issue of Front Line Genomics Magazine

FLG: What was the motivation behind the Qatar Genome Programme?

SI: It’s a Qatar Foundation initiative. The idea actually came directly from the Qatar Foundation chairperson, Her Highness Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser. She is personally interested in precision medicine and providing better healthcare for Qatar. She announced the plan at the 2013 edition of the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), and after assembling the team the pilot phase of the programme began in September 2015. The pilot phase is two years in which we sequence around six thousand genomes, and assemble research partnerships to analyse this first few thousand genomes. This is all work done in close partnership with Qatar Biobank, where we are currently incubated. We’re using samples of apparently healthy participants from Qatar Biobank for sequencing. We also have access to the rich phenotypic data provided by Qatar Biobank for each participant. Then by leveraging the research partnerships we are building across Qatar, and internationally, we will be analyzing the data to give us a good preliminary idea on the main features of the Qatari genome.

FLG: What would you say is the main goal of the Qatar Genome Programme?

SI: Unlike other genome projects which are more disease-focused, we are going for the population-based approach because Qatar is a small country of around 300,000 Qataris. Over the last decade, Qatar has invested a lot in building the infrastructure for biomedical research, with special focus on genomics and bioinformatics capabilities, in addition to hosting world class researchers in those fields. So we feel we have the chance to be another international model nation in genomics and precision medicine like Iceland was. Theoretically, we could sequence the entire population. But first we need to go through this pilot phase to test our capacities, our infrastructure, and provide results and analysis for decision makers. Although we started with healthy individuals from Qatar Biobank, eventually, with such a small population, we’ll include patients with various disorders as we are going to sequence large numbers of this small population.. It’s a unique chance that we have here. Qatar is one of the few countries or few places in the world where you can actually do that; you obviously can’t do it in countries with large populations. FLG: How much have you learnt from deCODE and what they have done in Iceland? SI: We have reviewed deCODE’s work as pioneers in the field and we think there are so many similarities between the two projects.

Although deCODE is a commercial entity, and we think our project will remain in the public domain in Qatar. In addition to being two small populations with more homogenous ancestries compared to other nations, we also both share the same goal to incorporate this huge amount of genomic data into the healthcare system. We have another good advantage in Qatar in having the Hamad Medical Corporation, HMC, here as the main healthcare provider. It’s not as big in scale as the NHS in England, but the smaller scale means we have a bit more control to better design and standardise new processes. As much as this project will help the Qatari population, we believe this is a great opportunity to make this an internationally applicable model.

FLG: Current reference genomes tend to cater to a certain demographic, which happens to be white Europeans. We’re starting to see more projects getting underway that are looking at addressing those gaps.

SI: You’re touching on a very important point that I’m glad you mentioned. Qatar will not only serve the health interests of its own population, but the whole of the Middle East. There’s a huge gap with respect to reference genomes from around the world right now. Everything comes from Europe, or from the States, or maybe the Far East. There are hundreds of millions of inhabitants in the Middle East, without comprehensive and robust genetic information to be leveraged. Our project in Qatar, and also that of Saudi Arabia, would at least cover a big chunk of the Middle East.

Not only is this important, it is also what precision medicine is all about. You can’t diagnose accurately, and you can’t treat accurately, if you don’t understand the genetic profiles of your own population. Each region or ethnic group should be going through this kind of process/project to ensure that they can deliver the best healthcare possible to their patients.

Check out the rest of the interview in the latest issue of Front Line Genomics Magazine – just download your free copy here