Laying the foundations

Al Jalila Foundation is pioneering medical innovation in the UAE with a new medical research centre in Dubai

It promises to put Dubai on the map as a world-class centre for medical discoveries.

Plans have been drawn up by the Al Jalila Foundation, a charitable organisation championing medical innovation, for a new 10-storey research centre to be built within two years with aims to attract 100 scientists from around the globe.

A plot has already been earmarked between the Mohammed Bin Rashid Academic Medical Centre and the proposed 400-bed teaching University Hospital.

And while the first clod of earth has yet to be dug in this patch of Dubai Healthcare City, work has begun on a new medical research centre, which is groundbreaking in every respect, from the innovative nature of its scientific pursuits to the accountable structure of the new venture.

Their primary focus will be to find new ways to combat five major killers and conditions in the UAE, with the potential to have an impact on treatment around the world. Those conditions include obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and mental health problems.

“This is to put Dubai on the map of research, development and healthcare,” says Dr Abdulkareem al Olama, the chief executive of Al Jalila Foundation.

“In everything else, Dubai and the UAE are on top, whether it is roads, airports or finance – except when it comes to research and development. These are areas of improvement.

“We cannot say we are like the United States but Dubai and the UAE are perfectly situated to be a medical destination centre for health.”

Al Jalila was founded a year ago by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, and named after his seven-year-old daughter Jalila.

Earlier this year, he visited the foundation’s current headquarters in Healthcare City with his daughter to view designs for the ambitious scheme.

Once the building goes up, with contractors set to start digging this year, three or four floors will be dedicated to the research centre while the rest of the building will be leased as a commercial venture.

While the foundation has already raised the Dh100 million needed to build the centre in the first place, thanks to generous donors and fundraising events (the Al Rostamani family alone gave Dh10 million) its managers hope it will be self-sustaining and are banking on tenants and donations to keep filling its coffers so they can maintain research projects.

“Research is costly,” says professor Sehamuddin Galadari, chairman of the organisation’s scientific advisory committee.

“No one should be fooled into thinking you can do research on peanuts but the return on that investment is immense, even if you only take it on face value in terms of social, economic, business, societal, psychological and health.”

Persuading the UAE’s population to see the long-term benefits of donating to research has been a battle, admits Dr Olama. While giving money to schools and hospitals shows an immediate and highly visible return, it takes a more long-term vision to see how funding scientific development will help a greater number of people in the long run.

“Tell me about it,” sighs the chief executive.

“It is hard as people want to see results immediately but we have managed to do a shift in their minds from paying money to hospitals or schools to paying for research. The community is maturing.”

The foundation has three main focus areas, education, treatment and research. While 70 per cent of its funds will be dedicated to research programmes, 20 per cent will be put aside for teaching purposes to give UAE nationals the chance to learn from world-class experts while the remaining 10 per cent will go toward healthcare for those who cannot afford it, primarily targeting children born with congenital deformities and disabilities.

Al Jalila has already covered the costs of youngsters needing cochlear implants, cancer patients and initiatives helping children with autism and their families. And they partnered with the charity Sentebale, fronted by Britain’s Prince Harry, to help children diagnosed as HIV positive in Lesotho. An astonishing Dh4 million was raised during a dinner hosted by the prince in Dubai last year and ground has already been broken for a children’s centre.

But paying for treatment is a small part of Al Jalila’s mission. Its primary goal is to bring in world renowned scientists and researchers and to raise standards of medical research within the UAE.

To that end, the foundation aims to be accountable, with a board of directors and trustees in place, chaired by the businesswoman Raja Easa al Gurg and the chairman of Emirates airline Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al Maktoum respectively, as well as an independent audit by the international firm Deloitte to ensure greater transparency.

Meanwhile a pot of Dh8 million will get the ball rolling in September, with seed grants of up to Dh300,000 for researchers worldwide who want to investigate health-related issues in the UAE, fellowships for Emirati biomedical professionals who want to study abroad and funding for student research placements of up to three months.

“We are hoping this will encourage the community to understand the opportunities that lie ahead of us and be wise enough to put their money where our mouths are to invest in biomedical research,” says Prof Galadari.