In a massively ambitious project aimed at improving the health of its 3 million residents, the city of Dubai plans to sequence the DNA of its entire population.
The United Arab Emirates city announced the initiative this month as part of its Dubai 10X Initiative, a bid to implement as soon as possible the technologies it believes will become standard 10 years from now.
The Dubai Health Association plans to create a massive genomic database of all of its residents, including non-citizens, the Khaleej Times reports. Then it plans to create novel artificial intelligence capable of analysing the data and potentially predicting diseases before they occur.
The city said it wants to “reverse” the genetic research process. “Instead of studying an affected patient’s genetics, our AI goes through database, finds out who has been affected, and looks for non-patients with similar genetic profiles and are therefore at risk,” the project website says.
In the final phase of the project, the city also hopes to collaborate with pharmaceutical companies to design targeted therapies for genetic conditions. The end goals of the project are lofty. Among them, the city hopes to eradicate and contain genetic disorders; prevent disease by prompting lifestyle changes in people at risk; help spur the adoption of personalized medicine; and, along the way, turn Dubai into a leader in genomic medicine. Whew.
It’s unclear whether Dubai plans to sequence the full genome of all its residents, or to only fully sequence a large number of them and then partially sequence the rest. Either way, DNA testing 3 million people is a pretty grand dream—even Britain, which has one of the most ambitious biobank programs in the world, only plans to decode the full genomes of half a million Brits. Though if any city can do it, it’s probably one with a ski slope in a high-rise in the middle of the desert, where big cats like lions and tigers are not-uncommon house pets.
Humaid Mohammed Al Qatami, director general of the Dubai Health Association, told the Khaleej Times that the first phase of the project, collecting DNA samples and setting up laboratories, should happen over the next two years. It’s unclear what privacy protections will be put in place to protect people’s data, or whether there will be any sort of requirement to participate.
The health authority says that the country has 220 diseases linked to genetic disorders, which are responsible for 70 percent of child mortality cases that occur before age six. A blood disorder called thalassaemia that is common in Middle Eastern countries reportedly affects nearly half of the Emirati population. The UAE, like many other Middle Eastern nations including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, already has a mandatory pre-marital health screening that includes screening for genetic diseases to avoid couples passing on disorders to their children. (A 2015 review of such programs found that while they weren’t especially successful at discouraging at-risk marriages, they did contribute to reducing the prevalence of affected births when countries also provided prenatal screening and therapeutic abortions.)
The effort could also potentially uncover health issues specific to the region, and highlight how environmental factors interplay with genetics.