Saudi Arabia is concentrating on biotechnology to export healthcare products

As the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia moves away from carbon-based energy and toward a more sustainable economy, biotechnology is becoming a more prominent focus and a significant component of Vision 2030.

Biotech is a field of science that develops new goods by utilising biological systems and living entities such as molecules. Breakthrough medicines, biofuels, genetically modified plants, and other products are typically created in a university or hospital lab and then brought to market by private companies — a process that can take up to a decade.

The King Abdullah International Medical Center (KAIMRC – pronounced ‘K-mark’) — the research arm of the National Guard’s Department of Health Affairs — is one of KSA’s biotech leaders.

Dr Ahmed said “Biotech is a vital and vibrant sector that has a major impact on health and the economy”. “The KSA is developing alternatives to the oil economy, and biotech is a major new source. Plus it’s an important part of the knowledge economy. Our strategy is to develop innovative products out of our research — that could be therapeutics or diagnostics or medical devices.”

Such goods begin their lives in the research labs of the KAIMRC, which employs 70 post-doctoral scientists and is backed by 20,000 employees at the National Guard’s six major hospitals and dedicated health sciences institution. The purpose is to take a possible product through a succession of studies and clinical trials until it is ready to be handed over to the private sector, which will refine it and bring it to the consumer market. Anti-venom medicines for scorpion stings and snakebites, for example, were created by KAIMRC and are already available in limited quantities around the world.

Dr Ahmed Alaskar added  “Oxford, Harvard, Johns Hopkins – you name it”, “It’s all about medical research: toward vaccines, genetic research, therapeutics, drug screening and so on. And our academic publications have been increasing 20-30 percent annually – we have exceeded 1600 publications in peer-reviewed journals in this year alone.”

There is also tight collaboration with renowned health-care businesses like AstraZeneca, Roche, and Novartis, with much of it taking place in KAIMRC’s Medical Biotechnology Park, which is housed within the massive National Guard property in Southeast Riyadh.

It’s a vicious circle: the more companies that set up shop in the Kingdom, the more will be enticed to invest, resulting in a biotech ecosystem that is expected to transform the Kingdom into a major exporter of health-care products in the next five to ten years.

MERS and Covid 19, two health catastrophes, have pushed KAIMRC’s work forward. In 2015, a group of KAIMRC scientists travelled to Oxford to work on a MERS vaccine with Oxford scientists, with trials and experiments continuing in the Kingdom – first on camels, then on humans. That research has now been submitted to an international peer-reviewed publication, and it is expected to result in a commercial product in the near future.

“When Covid 19 hit the Kingdom in March 2020, KAIMRC revealed the whole genome sequence of the virus within 3 days”, “Then we took that data and processed it using AI. We identified the sensitive targets in the virus, and which chemical molecules could be effective against those sensitive points – to kill the virus. We took our findings to clinical trial and the study has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal,” says Dr Ahmed Alaskar. The goal is to develop medicine that mitigates the effects of Covid 19, rather than providing protection against it.

With the upcoming Global Summit for Medical Biotechnology in Riyadh in mid-September, the KAIMRC is striving to position Saudi Arabia at the forefront of biotech.

“We want to work with the international pharma industry to create a national strategy for biotech, and to find solutions to the health care challenges that are faced in Saudi Arabia and around the world. “Vision 2030 is giving us the opportunity to do just that,” Dr Alaska says. 

Source: Arab News 

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