Spotlight | Dr. Asma Ali Al-Thani
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Spotlight | Dr. Asma Ali Al-Thani

Celebrating Qatar's healthcare leaders

Over the years, Qatar has invested considerable resources and efforts to build local human capital in biomedical and health sciences, including the field of precision medicine, to ensure that citizens of Qatar have access to the most effective and tailor-made treatments.

This month, we feature a healthcare leader, Dr. Asma Ali Al-Thani, who over her career has evolved to be a dynamic and visionary key figure in establishing and building a national-level precision medicine infrastructure.

Dr. Al-Thani received her PhD in virology from the renowned London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2005. As an academic, she has taught various courses at the Qatar University and Weill Cornell Medicine - Qatar.

Apart from being involved in different teaching positions at Qatar University, Dr. Al-Thani was the founding Dean of the College of Health Sciences and currently serves as the director of the Biomedical Research Center at Qatar University. She has also served on the Qatar Biobank Board as the Vice-Chairperson and oversaw the growth of the Qatar Genome Programme from 2015 to 2020.

Considering her illustrious career and valuable experience, Dr. Al-Thani has been appointed as the founding Executive Director of the Qatar Precision Medicine Institute. Moreover, she is also serving as a consultant to the Ministry of Public Health’s National Reference Laboratory.

Read below to learn more about her professional journey, the efforts underway for the development of a precision medicine infrastructure in Qatar, and what advice she has for the future leadership of the scientific and research sector in Qatar.

 

1. What attracted you to pursue a career in health and biomedical studies?

Growing up, I had always known that I want to specialize in the field of health and biomedical studies. I was curious to learn about natural science subjects, biology in particular, and decided to focus on virology - the study of viruses. While they are invisible to the naked eye, viruses have a huge impact as we are seeing nowadays with the pandemic spread of the coronavirus which has taken the lives of more than two million people in just over a year.

There was also some personal motivation behind my decision to study virology as two of my siblings had poliomyelitis (polio). I always wondered that why, although all of us were exposed to the same environment, only two were infected with the virus. This got me thinking about how some of us might be more vulnerable to viruses and what can we do to protect them. Therefore, my journey as an academic and a researcher till this day focuses on the causes behind the emergence and spread of diseases and viruses and their effects on our health.

I am also very interested in the field of precision medicine as well and have focused on it in my career to help people in Qatar better safeguard themselves from different diseases and help the local healthcare system develop specialized treatments based on the individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person.

2. Can you provide an overview of the efforts underway in Qatar for the development of precision medicine sector?

Qatar has emerged as an earlier adopter of precision medicine initiative on a national level in the region and a leader in promoting research and advancement in the field of genomics internationally. Qatar BioBank, Qatar Genome, and the recently launched Qatar Precision Medicine Institute are some of the initiatives that show Qatar’s commitment towards building an advanced precision medicine infrastructure in the country.

In a short time, Qatar has already sequenced 20,000 Qatari genomes and is aiming to reach 100,000 genomes in the future. Similarly, the Q-chip is another important achievement that holds hundreds of thousands of gene variants. The information it stores is collected from Qatari citizens and has helped with a more accurate diagnosis of diseases like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases while saving the costs of sending samples abroad for diagnosis of several hereditary cases.

For us to achieve our aim of a state-of-the-art precision medicine infrastructure, it is necessary to build institutions and cultivate a culture of research and education that enables our local researchers to conduct cutting-edge research. Therefore, Qatar has dedicated considerable resources and efforts to develop a comprehensive framework of educational, research, and medical institutions specializing in precision medicine.

On the research front, we have programs like the Path towards Precision Medicine Program, offered jointly by the Qatar National Research Fund and Qatar Genome, which is enabling innovative research in the field of precision medicine while building the local human capacity in Qatar. Similarly, we regularly conduct different community outreach programs with an added focus on connecting with students in local schools to get them interested in STEM subjects and educate them about the opportunities that are available to them to flourish in a career in biological and health sciences.

3. Do you have any advice for the next generation of scientists and researchers who will lead Qatar’s health sector in the future?

The journey to excellence is not a simple and straightforward one and therefore one key piece of advice I have for our upcoming scientists, researchers, and healthcare leaders is to be well-prepared and patient. Always remain focused on your goals and utilize opportunities to build and excel in your academic and professional careers. Students in Qatar have access to several avenues to advance their knowledge, conduct research, and gain experience at leading international academic institutions, research facilities, and laboratories and I encourage them to make full use of the support available to them.

While we, as seasoned experts, are here to help guide through our experience, ultimately the responsibility lies with our students to push themselves to reach their potential. We live in an interconnected world today. Students should reach out to experts from across the world and attend lectures outside of their research focus so they can broaden the scope of their knowledge and have a more holistic outlook of sciences and other disciplines.

 

*QNRF, in collaboration with Qatar Genome Programme, is accepting applications for the fifth cycle of the Path towards Precision Medicine (PPM) research program. To learn more and apply, visit www.qnrf.org.

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