RICHARD O'KENNEDY

Qatar 2020 | QATAR NATIONAL VISION 2030 | INTERVIEW

The first country in the world to track its citizens' genomes, Qatar is on track to make one of modern science's biggest breakthroughs by personalizing medical treatment and precision care.

Richard O’Kennedy
BIOGRAPHY

Richard O'Kennedy is vice-president of research, development, and innovation at the Qatar Foundation and vice president of research at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Doha. Previously, he was professor and scientific director of the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute at Dublin City University (DCU). He is former president of the London International Youth Science Forum and the Institute of Biology of Ireland, former chairman and founder of the Centre for Talented Youth in Ireland. He also represented Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy on the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In 2018, he was selected as the representative of the IUBMB for Qatar.

Can you give us an overview of the Qatar Foundation's recent accomplishments in terms of its RDI efforts?
The first element in developing the Qatar Foundation was to build the infrastructure. We had to create research institutes, universities, and the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) with all the physical elements needed for excellent research labs and facilities and the capacity to attract people. After that, we attracted world leaders and local individuals to develop cutting-edge research teams. These individuals have brought the level of research here to world-class levels in sectors such as medicine, cybersecurity, IT, energy, environment, and biomedical research. We have also been empowering women. For example, the percentage of female engineers at Texas A&M University in Qatar is about 42%, which is far above the university's female ratio in the US.

What is the main focus area of your R&D?
One of the areas we are looking at is personalized healthcare, or precision medicine. The concept is to develop a health service capacity where every person has the right form of individualized treatment. The first part of that is to understand the genome of every individual. Her Highness Sheikha Moza's vision is to determine the genome of every individual in the national and ultimately the wider population. By the end of 2019, we will have determined 18,000 genomes, with a further 100,000 over the next few years. As a percentage of the population, that is much higher than anywhere else in the world. We work closely with a variety of international organizations on this. Once we have this information, we are in a strong position to tailor medical treatment to the individual. In the long term, this will ensure everyone lives happier and healthier lives. This also involves capacity building in all the relevant technologies, as you also need diagnostics and treatment. Then, we can have companies that help to develop new diagnostics that are required, such as those utilizing bio-markers in the blood for the detection of certain diseases, since understanding diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and autism has global value.

What is the Qatar Foundation pursuing through investment in R&D?
All the new infrastructure here is geared toward the World Cup, but what is left after that will give Qatar a world-class infrastructure that will ease the creation of new industries. Where the Qatar Foundation comes in is in the important role of mobilizing human capital. To do that, first we have to educate from the most junior level right up through secondary level and across universities. Then, we have to ensure these people attain the right qualifications and develop expertise. They could then pursue their PhDs either here or abroad and hopefully over time develop excellent research and ideas.

Can you give us some numbers regarding institutions and patents already established by the Qatar Foundation?
We have built QSTP, which covers the size of about 125 football pitches. There, we are home to about 50 companies, including world leaders like General Electric and Microsoft, along with smaller companies and a whole range of start-ups. We currently have about 1,500 researchers involved in various activities across the universities and research entities. We also have partner universities, such as Texas A&M and Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), which is a home-grown university that focuses on postgraduate education and research. We hope HBKU will grow to be ranked among the top universities of the world, such as MIT. In addition, we have research institutes here, such as the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), which is considered a global leader in certain fields and works in collaboration with MIT in certain areas.