One of the three pillars of Qatar Foundation (QF), science and research, is one of the key drivers behind QF's mission to unlock human potential and build a knowledge economy in accordance with Qatar National Vision 2030.
Through the creation of three separate research entities under Hamad bin Khalifa University (HBKU), a member of QF, there exists a panorama of research – from energy and environment, to computing, to biomedicine – and QF is channeling ambition and innovation to produce outcomes that will have a transformative impact locally, regionally, and internationally.
One such research entity, Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI), seeks to achieve targeted therapies and enhanced strategies in disease prevention and diagnosis, to combat the foremost health challenges facing Qatar and the region.
With an ultimate goal of personalized, precision medicine, it is building its human, technical and physical capacity as part of a three-pronged strategy: to address national health challenges and priorities, to work in close alliance with stakeholders, and to reach out to the local community in order to develop the next generation of scientists and engage the public in research as citizen scientists.
The latter area of QBRI’s activities extends to its contributions towards education and training, through its combination of teaching in biomedical and health fields at HBKU and Qatar University (QU) and to contribution to the creation of biomedical graduate programs at both learning institutions.
QBRI currently has six senior scientists and principal investigators that have joint appointments at the HBKU Biological and Biomedical Sciences graduate program. In addition, QBRI is leveraging its strategic partnership with prestigious institutions such as Harvard Medical School and the International Brain Organizations to offer unique advanced training opportunities in neuroscience and cancer for young students, scientists and clinicians in Qatar.
“We view QBRI is an extension of all national educational, translational, and clinical research institutions,” said Dr Hilal Lashuel, Executive Director, QBRI.
The proactive approach QBRI has taken to education is year-round. In summer 2015 – from May to July – the institute launched a new internship initiative: its 'Summer Research Programme' (SRP).
The SRP ran for eight weeks and provided undergraduate students from local, regional, and international universities hands-on laboratory research experience under the supervision of researchers at QBRI.
Speaking to The Foundation, Lina Hassna, SRP Programme Manager, QBRI, said that the program was emblematic of how QBRI’s capacity building within the field of education is focused on allowing students to put theoretical knowledge into practice.
“It is a way for us to give back to society,” she stated. “And it’s an opportunity for our scientists to interact with young students and inspire them. Our approach at QBRI is not to wait until people knock on our doors. It’s about being active in communicating and reach out to our youth.”
Dr Lashuel echoed Hassna’s statements, saying: “We've taken a proactive approach in sharing the excitement of science and to offer them the space and environment to learn and realize their full potential.
“We want people to be pursuing science for the right reasons and I feel that their passion for discovery should be one of the key factors in their decision to want to become scientists.
“We aim to create opportunities and experiences for young people to experience the excitement of science very early in their career.”
Collaboration and exchange of expertise
In addition to the knowledge transfer of its education-based capacity building, QBRI is committed to knowledge transfer through cross-institutional collaboration. Notable past examples of QBRI’s direct involvement within local partners, stakeholders, and international organizations include hosting the landmark IBRO-MENA Neuroscience Symposium of December 2014 (focusing on behavioral disorders) and the QBRI-Kyoto University Joint Symposium in March 2015 (focusing on stem cell advances).
Such partnerships are a key facet of QBRI’s knowledge transfer strategies, according to Dr Lashuel.
“We want to position QBRI strategically as a hub for advanced learning in biomedicine and health, and be a major contributor to capacity building in Qatar and on a regional level,” stated Dr Lashuel.
“QBRI is a national institution. We advance our own priorities but we also look at things from a national perspective and ask ourselves: 'What are the missing pieces of our puzzle?'”
For QBRI, the criteria for international partnerships is to work with highly reputable institutions that are leaders in their field of interest, and to partner with people and institutions on the basis of the partnership being driven by shared scientific interests and ambitions. Partnerships are based on mutual commitment between the two institutions, and the commitment that is always required of QBRI’s partners is contribution to local capacity building and effective transfer of knowledge to Qatar while working on the frontiers (high-risk, high reward projects).
For Walid Qoronfleh, Director, Biotechnology Development, QBRI, the impact of effective partnership is multi-layered.
“We look at partnerships as a way to achieve and transform medical advances pertaining to healthcare issues in Qatar, and as a way to ensure the long-term sustainability of research programs and advances in our research facilities,” he said.
“The impact of this can be seen at three levels: accelerating the transfer of advanced knowledge and technologies; ensuring the effectiveness of how we build research programs; and lastly, how we build capacity, which provides us with opportunities to link with other researchers in the region and establish collaborations. These partnerships must contribute to positioning QBRI and Qatar as a leader in our priority research areas.”
The final area of QBRI’s capacity building is an area that includes education and local and international collaboration: its promotion of science-based initiatives. The Harvard Medical School Cancer Biology & Therapeutics Program – a joint initiative of the Harvard Medical School Office of Global Education and QBRI – is one example.
The program is a 12-month blended-learning certification program designed to provide participants with skills and knowledge in cancer biology and an understanding of the latest and most innovative preventive and therapeutic approaches. Spread across 12 months, the program is comprised of 15 interactive live online seminars, 45 pre-recorded lectures, and three in-person workshops to take place in Doha; London; and the Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.
Speaking on the prestige of the program and QBRI’s involvement, Dr Reem Olaby, Postdoctoral Researcher, QBRI, told The Foundation: “QBRI has a unique role when compared to other research institutes. In fact, it’s a lot more than a research institute because it wants to be a regional focal point for capacity building, advanced training and networking between different minds.
“On an international level, these programs prove that we at QBRI and QF have the ability to carve our own space within scientific research, and that we want to join the worldwide race of scientific breakthroughs,” she added.
“We are very pleased with the level of interest from the scientific community in Qatar and the region. The program has received more than 250 applications and we expect more than 20 students, scientists and clinicians from Qatar to take part in this unique program.”
QBRI is also planning to launch a Young Scientist program, which involves QBRI staff and scientists participating in several events aimed at sharing the excitement of science with schoolchildren to encourage them to pursue careers in science.
Designed to target students of all ages, the program seeks to increase awareness towards different aspects in the medical research and health field, via implementing different activities in an entertaining and engaging way.
The program confirms QBRI’s status as a research institute dedicated to transferring knowledge of science to schoolchildren, undergraduates, postgraduates, and medical professionals, ensuring a multi-generational scope and engagement with all members of society in Qatar and beyond.
“In order for us to achieve our goal of personalized medicine, we need the people of Qatar to be active citizen scientists. Without their participation, sharing of their biological samples, and valuable data, it will not be possible to achieve our goal of personalized and precision medicine. We are all partners in this exciting journey.
“For this to happen, we need to have effective methods of demonstrating to the public the value of the nation investing in research. Effective engagement with the public is an absolute necessity for the sustainable development of research in Qatar. If we succeed in that goal, then we will succeed in the lab as well.”