M42, an Abu Dhabi-based, global tech-enabled health company, recently announced a big collaboration on genomics, teaming up with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Microsoft and the International Center for Genetic Disease.
Together, the group will leverage Terra, an open-source platform for biomedical research co-developed by Broad Institute, Microsoft, and Verily, which gives research teams access to health data in a secure environment.
Terra will also serve as the foundation for M42’s Global Life Sciences Platform.
This collaboration is aimed at democratising access to health data with the broader vision of transforming global healthcare and advancing precision health discovery and delivery.
On the sidelines of Arab Health, ESG Mena heard from the partners about what this collaboration means for the global health ecosystem.
Although representing 5 per cent of the population, genome data on the Arab population is massively underrepresented.
This underrepresentation in genomic databases stands in contrast to the complex diseases that are on the rise in the Arab world and risks exacerbating health disparities.
Last year, the UAE launched the National Genome Strategy, overseen by the Emirates Genome Council, to close this gap and create a comprehensive framework of laws and regulations to support the development and implementation of genomic programmes.
One of the strategy’s foundational projects is the Emirati Genome Program (EGP).
Facilitated by M42, it seeks to map the DNA of Emiratis and provide individuals with more personalised care.
As one of the largest population genomic initiatives ever undertaken, the program enables access to high-quality data to identify the causes of genetic diseases, gain insight into genetic mutations and susceptibility and develop more effective healthcare plans.
Further, through Malaffi, the Health Information Exchange (HIE) platform operated by ADHDS, an M42 company, clinicians can view program participants’ pharmacogenomic reports (PGx).
Now, M42 is teaming up with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Microsoft, and the International Center for Genetic Disease to scale the impact of this work further, collaborating with healthcare organisations across the global ecosystem.
Speaking about this and the progress that has been made over the years, Danielle Ciofani, Senior Director, Data Strategy & Business Development, Data Sciences Platform, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, said: “I think we often overlook that when electronic medical record systems were created, they were locked down. There was no concept of sharing or using that information in an aggregate form for the greater good.”
Genomics, on the other hand, Ciofani said, has been born in the internet era, with a greater understanding of how information is better used when democratised.
“That leads to less bias and better health outcomes for all,” said Ciofani. “So, the idea of taking that mindset of bringing data together and empowering people safely to use it, and then bringing clinical records into that paradigm is actually very novel.”
Enabling better outcomes & facilitating precision health
Indeed, M42’s Group Chief Operating Officer, Ashish Koshy, explained that genomics, when brought into one platform, can help provide a 360-degree view of an individual to understand their health beyond their legacy electronic health records.
This, he said, can enable analysis for multiple stakeholders, from clinicians and researchers to regulators, by bringing the entire population’s datasets together in one central database, helping to assist in making critical decisions and reducing costs.
Further, Koshy explained that in Abu Dhabi, M42 has deployed pharmacogenomics, which means that patients no longer have to experiment with and buy new pharmaceutical products as data matches them with the right medication.
Meanwhile, from the pharmaceutical company perspective, Koshy outlined that centralised data on genomics could also improve clinical trials.
“They are running clinical trials without understanding if it will work in the population. We can help them by providing the datasets in the right regulatory manner. These are potential partners who could come along in this discussion,” he added.
The broader impact of the platform
On the core vision of the collaboration, Chief Medical Scientist at Microsoft Research, Dr Junaid Bajwa, said: “This is about creating the conditions that will enable the region to deliver precision health.”
Adding: “Once this is live, imagine the research community that will come to the region. Imagine then the life science innovation that will be delivered, imagine how the practice of medicine changes, and then imagine what the impact is.”
Meanwhile, Koshy said that having one national platform to drive Population Health and precision medicine has never been done before, noting that this platform builds on the success of previous initiatives and the Health Information Exchange by combining those data generation and analytics efforts.
Further, Koshy told ESG Mena that, with the platform, there is an opportunity to initiate partnerships with different countries.
“We are now ready; we are having this conversation with countries that have those large datasets,” he said. “We can collaborate together in one safe, secure manner, in one trusted research environment to allow researchers to work across these datasets in this region.”
Privacy, policy and compliance
Of course, when it comes to providing access to data, guaranteeing security and privacy is crucial.
Here, Elena Bonfiglioli, Global Business Leader, GM Healthcare, Pharma Life Sciences, Microsoft, called to “let the data speak” and said the biggest breakthrough from initiatives like Malaffi will be when people are confident that they are using it within the boundaries of privacy and security.
“If not, what happens is what happens in healthcare too often: data sets stay silent in a system of record. Here, they become a system of engagement and a system of insights on human healthcare.”
Exploring how the platform maintains compliance with privacy laws across different geographies, Ciofani said: “In our world, I think about privacy, policy and compliance versus security and technical enforcements to protect that. There’s user compliance and privacy, which follows exactly where the user is coming from, then there’s data-centric policies and privacy.”
Here, Ciofani gave the example of GDPR in the UK. “GDPR applies to data that’s generated in the UK, as well as users using software in the UK.”
“So when we build and operate our software, we think about both universally because the TRE is a multi-sided platform between those two, and we think about country-specific policies. For all of the big ones, we meet those criteria,” Ciofani said.
Further, Ciofani explained that, from a compliance standpoint, when onboarding more data assets, it implements a check against policies.
“Then there are specific technical enforcements that we put in place to allow data owners to set policies. So, for example, with M42, say on day one, they only want to invite researchers to their data and not let researchers take the data with them, that’s fine.”
Indeed, through creating secure frameworks to let “data speak,” projects like these are a big step towards realising the potential of genomic data and helping to close the data gap.
And, with the sector pegged to exceed $178.5 billion by 2032, the genomics revolution is, no doubt, well underway.