Success Story | Dr. Essam M. Abdelalim
With funding from QNRF’s National Priorities Research Program (NPRP), Dr. Essam Abelalim leads a globally-inspired and locally-significant research project to provide valuable information about diabetes, the leading health concern in Qatar today. Read more about his research journey below.
Inspiration in the Land of the Rising Sun
For Dr. Essam M. Abdelalim, stem cell scientist at the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI) and assistant professor at the College of Health and Life Sciences (CHLS) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, the inspiration for his current research focus was ignited years ago at the Shiga University of Medical Science in Japan.
While he was a PhD student working towards a degree in Medical Science, Dr. Essam learned of the groundbreaking research being conducted by Japanese stem cell researcher, Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD, who worked close by at Kyoto University. Yamanaka was the first researcher to generate Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs) from a mouse in 2006, and a human in 2007. That is, he discovered the process of how to transform ordinary adult skin cells into cells that, like embryonic stem cells, are capable of developing into any other cell in the human body. This breakthrough discovery that mature cells could be reprogrammed to become pluripotent cells would later earn Yamanaka the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine along prize with John B. Gurdon of the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, England.
This discovery meant that researchers could now forgo harvesting embryonic stem cells, a practice fraught with ethical implications and limited applicability to the wider population. Instead, they could create iPSCs from a person’s skin or blood and then study the cell lines to learn more about a person’s genetic composition.
For the world, the discovery changed the course of stem cell biology and the development of precision medicine forever. For Dr. Essam, the experience of witnessing Yamanaka’s work as it unfolded while he was in Japan stayed with him until years later; he himself would seek to apply the ingenuity of the discovery to the most critical health issue in the State of Qatar: diabetes.
iPSCs and Understanding the Genetics Behind Diabetes
Though diabetes statistics in Qatar are well known, they are still alarming: The prevalence of diabetes is an estimated 17% of the population – twice the global average. Of patients with diabetes, around 10% have type 1 diabetes (T1D), and 90% have type 2 diabetes (T2D). A further 20% of the population have prediabetes, with 10% of these progressing to type 2 diabetes per annum.
In his QNRF-funded study titled hiPSC-based models to investigate the mechanisms underlying insulin resistance in the offspring of type 2 diabetic Qatari parents, Dr. Essam sought to harness the power of iPSCs to identify the genetic defects associated with insulin resistance in the offspring of diabetic parents, who are genetically predisposed to T2D. This would enable medical practitioners to successfully detect T2D onset earlier and tailor drug treatments to an individual patient’s need.
Dr. Essam’s team recruited several insulin-resistant offspring who originated from families with a strong history of type 2 diabetes (both parents are diabetic), or insulin-sensitive individuals from families without a history of diabetes (neither parents have diabetes). They used blood samples collected from participants to create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). By studying the iPSC lines, they attempted to understand the mechanisms underlying the development of insulin resistance (IR) in the offspring of type 2 diabetic parents.
The study found that the cells generated from these offspring carry genetic defects associated with insulin resistance that may be associated with the development of type 2 diabetes.
In essence, the research team was able to pinpoint the genetic anomalies that indicated whether an individual would be likely to develop type 2 diabetes. This insight is critical as it can potentially inform future drug therapy to delay the onset of diabetes, treat their specific disease, or tailor medical treatment to ensure increased quality of life.
Globally-inspired Local Research with Glocal Impact
Dr. Essam’s globally-inspired research provides an important iPSC-based diabetes models that can support early diagnosis and personalized therapy for insulin resistance and T2D.
Apart from the important implications the results of a study like this may have in the addressing a national priority, this study, like many QNRF-funded research, also contributes to the strengthening of the glocal research ecosystem in many other ways.
On the one hand, it offers an opportunity for local researchers to engage and collaborate with each other to gain experience, learn new skills and leverage the current resources available in Qatar. This can be seen in the diverse research team that drew from various areas in the local research ecosystem and consisted of four professional collaborators (three from Hamad Medical Corporation and one from Sidra Medicine, a postdoctoral researcher, two research associates, two PhD students, and one master’s student – all of whom have provided and gained invaluable experience by participating in this work.
On the other hand, their collective contribution also has a wider global impact: it is one piece in the puzzle when it comes to studying and understanding diabetes holistically. This research will provide an essential platform for understanding the genetic factors of diabetes that can eventually be translated into the development of novel treatments and therapies for this locally and globally increasing problem.
The results can inform diabetes treatment and prevention both in Qatar and around the world. It can be used to support mandates of diabetes advocacy groups who use research to influence policy, increase public awareness and encourage health improvement, promote the exchange of high-quality information about diabetes, and provide education for people with diabetes and their healthcare providers.