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Dubai Wants to DNA Test Its Millions of Residents to Prevent Genetic Disease

The ambitious plan is part of its Dubai 10X Initiative to improve health in the city

Dubai is home to three million residents, making city-wide DNA testing no small feat. (Crazy Diamond/Flickr CC)

The city of Dubai has big goals to improve the health and well being of its residents. Through a project called Dubai 10X Initiative, it hopes to leverage technology to end disease due to genetic disorders and adopt customized treatment and medicine. But one of the most ambitious aspects of the project is the plan to test the DNA of all 3 million of its residents, Kristen V. Brown reports for Gizmodo.

First reported by the Khaleej Times and The National, the Dubai Health Authority, a government organization that oversees the city’s healthcare system, plans to create a genomic database for all its residents, both citizens and non-citizens. Artificial intelligence will be used to tease through the database. According to the DHA website: "[I]nstead of studying an affected patient’s genetics, our AI goes through database, finds out who has been affected, and looks for non-patients with similar genetic profiles and are therefore at risk." 

Dubai hopes to encourage lifestyle changes for those at risk to lower their chances of developing disease, Brown reports. But in loftier goals, they also hope the initiative is a push to develop personalized medicine. Yet currently, it’s unclear what considerations will be made for privacy protection, Brown reports.

Dubai’s plans for DNA testing is set to outdo even the most ambitious attempts to create genetic databases in the name of health. If completed, Dubai will have the first national DNA database for research, reports The National.

In January, Britain's UK Biobank announced a plan to decode the genes of half a million of its residents, Antonio Regaldo reported for Technology Review at the time. The data would be public and is intended to help drug companies and scientists advance medical research. When announced, the UK Biobank was set to become the world’s single largest collection of genetic data. But now, Dubai is in the race for the title.

As Newsweek reported in 2016, Kuwait became the first country to start collecting DNA samples from all of its residents. The move came after the passing of a 2015 law, and was aimed at improving national security and helping the government solve crimes and terrorism cases.

According to Humaid Mohammed Al Qatami, director general of the Dubai Health Association, the first phase of the project will take place over the next two years, the Khaleej Times reports. That will involve collecting DNA samples and setting up labs.

The initiative is just one of the ways United Arab Emirates is leading on health efforts, Brown writes. Like other Middle Eastern countries, UAE already mandates pre-marital health screenings that checks for genetic diseases. About 220 diseases linked to genetic disorders affect the country. 

Dubai 10X officially launched in early 2017 but specific plans in the initiative were announced last month. The DNA database is just one of its 26 projects. Another project will allow the city to work with pharmaceutical companies to design customized therapies for specific conditions. As Brown reports, the city believes these types of initiatives will become standard within the next decade. 

About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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