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Emirati scientist building world’s biggest DNA databank of bedouins

Dr Habiba Alsafar widens study to find links between genes and certain diseases

  • By Jay B. Hilotin, Chief Reporter
  • Published: 21:30 August 14, 2013
  • XPRESS

  • Image Credit: Supplied photo
  • Dr Habiba Sayeed Alsafar believes her study will lead to a greater understanding of the region's genetic diversity
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ABU DHABI: An Emirati scientist who found a link between Type 2 diabetes and the UAE’s native population is widening her study to cover more Bedouin communities, creating the biggest DNA database of its kind.

Dr Habiba Sayeed Alsafar, assistant professor at Abu Dhabi-based Khalifa University for Science Technology and Research (KUSTAR), has collected clinical data from 26,076 volunteers who consented to be included in the Emirates Family Registry (EFR) biological database over a three-year period.

Initially, as many as 1,766 of these samples were collected from native Bedouin donors. But now that number has increased to about 4,000, making it the world’s largest Genome-Wide Association Study (GWAS) on Bedouins till date.

“Ethnicity can increase or decrease one’s risk of developing diabetes,” Dr Habiba told XPRESS. “Certain ethnic groups are at greater risk to develop type 2 diabetes than others.”

A wider DNA collection of native communities requires joint effort among institutions and other research centres, she said. Like fingerprints, each person has his or her own unique DNA sequence, found in almost every cell in the body.

Dr Habiba’s credentials include a PhD in Medical and Forensics Science from the University of Western Australia. Recently, she was awarded a prestigious Harvard Foundation Scholarship grant to expand her clinical research. She holds a Masters of Science in Medical Engineering from the UK and obtained her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry (Biochemistry) at the San Diego State University in 2002.

Her study, first published in 2011, identified several previously undetected gene locations on chromosomes directly associated with Type 2 diabetes in native UAE population.

It found the strongest links within the PRKD1 gene, which plays an important role in insulin secretion.

“This gene monitors the insulin secretion from pancreatic cells and had been widely studied in the past among other ethnic groups (Africans, Caucasians and Asians), but it had never been associated with diabetes in other populations,” she told XPRESS.

Her interest in studying Bedouin genes is due in part to the fact that they are more “hooegenous” in nature.

With a much wider DNA database covering an assortment of ethnic groups in the Gulf region, Dr Habiba believes it will lead to greater understanding of the region’s genetic diversity -- and a deeper insight into the mechanisms that trigger diseases.

“We’ve only scratched the surface. We’re expecting more countries in the region to join this wider study,” she said. Despite funding constraints, Dr Habiba is determined to widen the study to generate a solid database. “This could help piece together better intervention and prevention programmes to improve the quality of life throughout the Arab world,” she said.

Her project was published in prestigious scientific journals International Journal of Diabetes and Metabolism and Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, among others.

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