Sheikh Khalifa’s medical legacy transformed UAE cancer care

Research programme and training have helped extend the lives of thousands of patients

The well-being of UAE residents was a cornerstone of the late President, Sheikh Khalifa’s strategic development plan after he assumed the presidency in 2004. That ambition would be realised in the transformation of cancer facilities in the Emirates from two to more than a dozen — with four leading hospitals carrying his name treating patients across the country. Shortly after his death, a leading Emirati doctor paid tribute to the legacy of Sheikh Khalifa, whose support helped to change the face of cancer care around the world. Humaid Al Shamsi, president of the Emirates Oncology Society, said a $150 million donation towards a leading cancer treatment centre in Houston, Texas, fast-tracked the professional development of hundreds of oncologists in the US. Funding was granted to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre in 2011, the largest in the US, where many Emirati patients have gone for expert care. Fellowship programmes to further education in the field of oncology were also established at the centre.

“The contribution to cancer care worldwide by Sheikh Khalifa and his foundation was huge, although many people may be unaware of the details,” said Dr Al Shamsi, director of oncology at Burjeel Medical City in Abu Dhabi.

“If we go back to 2004, at the start of Sheikh Khalifa’s presidency, we had a limited number of hospitals that treated cancer.

“There were only two but now there are many more, including Sheikh Khalifa hospitals in Ras Al Khaimah and in Abu Dhabi.

“Any UAE national with an Emirates ID can visit for free treatment, no questions asked, no matter what condition they have.

“The Ras Al Khaimah hospital has become a hub for cancer care in the Northern Emirates and it is very well used.”

MD Anderson was chosen as a partner for the foundation as it is one of the world’s leading international research centres. Many patients from the UAE have been treated there over the years and there is a long-standing relationship with strong, recognised research programmes. The foundation funded the construction of the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Building for Personalised Cancer Care, a 55,740-square-metre building on 2 hectares of MD Anderson’s main campus. The centre integrates the delivery of basic and clinical research to support personalised cancer care. It also houses the Khalifa Institute for Personalised Cancer Therapy and the Sheikh Ahmed bin Zayed Al Nahyan Centre for Pancreatic Cancer Research. Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation’s scholarship programme allows Emiratis to pursue fellowships, residency programmes, postgraduate studies and observerships at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre and the Mayo Clinic. Khalifa Scholars are selected from faculty-level physicians and researchers at MD Anderson and receive one to two years’ salary to support independent research projects.

Lasting impact

Meanwhile, hundreds of institutional trainees and junior faculty members have joined fellowships, with each recipient receiving support to subsidise costs associated with a specific project in personalised cancer therapy. Robert Wolff, professor and chairman of the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Distinguished University of Medical Oncology, said the research would enhance efforts to determine the specific genetic and molecular abnormalities in each patient’s cancer and prescribe appropriate therapy that targets abnormalities.

“The lasting impact of the generosity of Sheikh Khalifa cannot be overstated,” Dr Wolff said.

“When we discussed the allocation of the grant, I described it as an investment in hardware, software and people.

“The hardware was the construction of the beautiful Zayed Building which has provided the physical plant to do cutting-edge research in personalised cancer therapy, with the molecular characteristics informing us much better about treatments that will work better for the patient.

“The Khalifa Institute was the software that gave us the organisational infrastructure and resources to greatly increase the number of patients having access to our molecular pathology efforts and identify appropriate candidates for specific clinical trials,” he said.

Dr Wolff added: “Increasing efforts in big data have also allowed us to analyse these derangements and uncover other patterns of cancer biology.

“Some of our early graduates are now becoming full professors and are leaders in a variety of cancers — lung, colon, breast and pancreatic cancers.

“These resources have transformed the quality and quantity of cancer research conducted here and have enabled our position as leaders in precision medicine.”

New medicine used globally

Dr Al Shamsi was the first Emirati to enter the programme, after initially applying in 2013, and later moved to Texas from Canada to continue his training and research.

“We published a paper in 2016 that described a special cancer mutation in the gallbladder that resulted in a new FDA-approved medicine that is now used worldwide by tens of thousands of patients with this certain type of cancer,” he said.

“It is just a small example of how this kind of research has had a global impact.

“There are an excellent number of physicians trained thanks to the programme that are now practising worldwide, both Emirati and expatriate.

“It has led to more experience to come to the UAE. My training and experience have not happened overnight and that has come from investing in these programmes and raising awareness about cancer and early screening.

“Pancreatic cancer patients used to live for around three to six months, now they can survive for up to two years, so there is real progress.

“There have been huge improvements and there are more to come.”

A version of this story was first published on May 18, 2022