MANAM—Scientists in Bahrain have used genetics to further the understanding of how the brain interacts with the immune system, a discovery that could lead to improved cancer treatments. But the work also shows the challenges that even internationally recognized research in the region faces to get to such therapeutic results.
“Developing a drug that can treat malignancy needs a time not less than 10 years and it might take 25 years,” said Mohammed Dahmani, the dean of the Graduate School at the Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain. “It also needs a budget not less than $500 million, and that is, of course, not available for us.”
The budget for scientific research in Bahrain is 0.04 percent of the annual national income. Dahmani says that it can be hard to get additional support from international grant-giving organizations to fill the gap.
“They look at Bahrain as an oil-producing country with high income so they do not agree to support us,” he said.
A team of researchers at the Arabian Gulf University inserted a gene into a mouse, which makes its spleen produce a compound called the Israa protein. “The Israa protein compound represents a link between the central nervous system and the immune system. It is secreted by the spleen’s immune cells after receiving nervous signals in response to an immune challenge,” said Moiz Bakhiet, the head of Molecular Medicine Department at the university and a member of the research team.
Understanding the immune system and how malignant tumors avoid its detection is key to developing new cancer treatments. So while Bakhiet’s discovery is unlikely to lead to the development of a specific anti-cancer drug right away, it does offer a new avenue for treatments for him and other cancer researchers to explore.
Bakhiet began his research 25 years ago, when he was a Ph.D. student at Karolinska Medical University in Stockholm. “I have tried to understand the role of the brain, the most organized system in the human body, in alerting the immune system.”
To make his discovery, he cut the spleen’s nervous supply in some mice to isolate it from the brain. Then he injected the animals with harmful agents to observe what happened next. The mice without severed nerves produced the Israa protein, and Bakhiet also observed that the protein stimulated an immune response. He thinks that, with more research, he could figure out a dose of the Israa protein that could be given to humans to make their immune systems respond to diseases like cancers and HIV.
In 2008, Bakhiet’s team started its work with the support of Princess Al-Jawhara Al-Ibrahim Center for Molecular Medicine, Genetics and Inherited disorders, a center affiliated with the Arabian Gulf University. It took six years to perfect the genetic engineering to get the mice to produce the right protein.
Khalid Jerish, an associate professor from the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Infectious Diseases at the Arabian Gulf University who was not involved with the study, described the discovery as unique. He stressed that further understanding of immune systems could also help advance the field of cancer detection.
“The increased information on the functions of the protein will increase our understanding of the nature of the diseases influenced by the immune system such as cancer, besides helping to treat several incurable immune diseases such as inflammatory ulcerative colitis,” Jerish said.
Yet the road is still long for the research team seeking to discover the gene’s function and its impact on the immune system, which delays any development for a treatment for cancer that would follow up on Bakhiet’s findings.
Bakhiet is grateful to receive the university’s support, but he emphasizes it will be difficult to continue the research right through to the stage in which he would produce cancer treatments with university funding alone.
“Unfortunately, the researchers in our region cannot guarantee the continuity of their work,” said Dahmani, adding that some universities don’t support research projects for longer than five years, “which is not sufficient to realize any real achievement.”
Researchers in the region say they face arduous battles to sustain their funding for future years, which limits their progress.
Dahmani dreams of an Arab organization to support scientific research, much like the National Science Foundation in the United States. This is critical, he said, for research projects to reach their full potential.
“Spending on scientific research should not be less than one percent of the Arab governments’ budgets,” he said, “otherwise we will not be able to achieve any progress.”