June 15, 2006 (Vol. 26, No. 12)

The Eastern Mediterranean Health Genomics & Biotechnology Network Critical for the Region

It has been noted that technology and research play a critical role in all aspects of society. However, only 10% of all research is being performed by developing countries, according to a WHO report. Thus, it is crucial to establish networks through which institutes in developing countries can forge links with each other to enable scientific interactions. The Eastern Mediterranean Health Genomics and Biotechnology Network (EMHGBN) was hence established to stimulate advancement in relevant capacities within the developing world.

The EMHGBN is an outcome of an effort made by the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO) of WHO in 2004 to create a biotechnology network for the Eastern Mediterranean region, to develop a framework for action and targets for networking in genomics and biotechnology within this region, and to define priorities for applied research in genomics and biotechnology.

EMRO&#8217s policy for health research and development emphasizes collaboration among institutes for information exchange, training, and research. It also stresses the need for a greater emphasis on developing a broad regional consensus, vision, mission, and policy for genomics and biotechnology development.

Thus far, there have been two ad hoc meetings in Tehran and Oman. The members that have actively participated and helped in the establishment of the network are Iran, Oman, Bahrain, Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. While Iran has two networks and Oman is working on establishing its own, some member states still lack a network. It is highly recommended that all members establish such networks.

Network’s Goals

After EMHGBN&#8217s second meeting in Tehran, the members agreed upon the following principles: &#37To create and sustain value by being recognized as a player in the international biopharmaceutical, genomics, and biotechnological industry aiming at promoting health in the region&#37 by stimulating &#37sustainable development of health genomics and biotechnology through facilitation of high-quality R&D training, sharing information, experience distribution, and technology transfer in order to meet common and regional health needs of member countries.&#37

The agreed mission was &#37to induce collaboration in production, training, research, and development to be self reliant in biotechnology and industry production&#37 and &#37to facilitate cooperation between wealthy and poor countries to upgrade health standards.&#37 Also among the goals for this network is helping in capacity building in genomics and biotechnology through public awareness, promotion, training, and educational programs.

One of the initial activities of the EMHGBN was to start joint projects; the joint activities seem promising, since a single institute could lack all the necessary facilities, centralized equipment, and experience.

Regional Obstacles

As always, however, there are some challenges associated with trying to promote goals of this kind. A big problem for member states is brain drain. Research policy limitations that impact member states&#8217 ability to establish international collaboration in technology transfer are yet another dilemma.

There is also a considerable lack of strong management in large-scale research policy and strategic planning. The researcher&#8217s work is controlled by the granting agency and can be changed accordingly. If money is allocated to a particular subject, the researcher has to follow, with less attention to what may be actually considered the national priorities.

In addition, the potential of genomics and biotechnology for national growth has not yet been fully realized and therefore political support is lacking. Financial investments are also small and capacities, both human and material, are fragile.

Developing nations around the world face similar challenges, of these, the lack of communication and coordination between scientists to share knowledge and experience is the most visible. Thus scientific interaction and exchange in genomics and biotechnology needs to be strengthened.

While ties between nations must be strengthened, the partners within the network need to understand the benefits of being a member of the network.

The network should do more than just connect member states in the region. It should be able to govern and supervise projects, based on regional demands and priorities. EMHGBN should also be the sole organizer of all activities within member states.

The expectations of developed countries in this endeavor can be categorized into three main areas, providing finance, transfer of technology, and experience. The much renowned expertise in the industrialized world can be a big help. At the same time, it is important that the EMHGBN functions independently of the influence of governments and international organizations, such as WHO. It should have its own mandate and system of governance.

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