Open sesame – medical research in the Middle East

14 February 2017

The SESAME Project is constructing the Middle East’s first major international research centre, a cooperative venture by the scientists and governments of the region that is under the umbrella of UNESCO. We speak to Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith, the president of the SESAME council, which governs the project, about the set-up for the organisation and what this could mean for public-health research in the region.

Sadly, despite the rapid growth in prosperity and living standards in recent decades, the Middle East is not regarded as one of the world’s great research centres. For years, the region has lagged behind other areas in terms of money and resources poured into all sorts of scientific, medical and social research. The rate of patents held and submitted by those in Middle Eastern nations is lower than that of most other developed regions, and many of its key scientists, researchers and well-educated graduates are forced to leave for North America or Europe to pursue their study.

But all that could be about to change: an intergovernmental research lab in Jordan is opening and offering the use of new technology that could propel Middle Eastern research into the future. The lab, called the SESAME Project (the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East), will offer research teams resources around light and X-rays to investigate atoms, cells and materials. The lab’s operations are aimed at bolstering the region’s scientific capacity, providing a path to achievement and discovery, and, ultimately, improving the lives of those in the region.

The lab has several multilateral research projects already under way, all of which make use of the synchrotron Day-One Beamline machines, a highly specialised laser technology that has the potential to make a huge difference in patient’s lives. There are only 60 of these machines worldwide.

A synchrotron light source is a source of electromagnetic radiation usually produced by a storage ring that gives off very intense pulses of light/X-rays. The major applications of synchrotron light are in condensed matter physics, material science, biology and medicine. A large fraction of experiments using synchrotron light involve probing the structure of matter, from the sub-nanometre level of electronic structure, to the micrometre and millimetre levels important in medical imaging.

Science for peace

SESAME has a unique mission for a medical research centre: not only to undertake great scientific research, but also to build scientific and cultural bridges between diverse societies, and contribute to a culture of peace through international cooperation in science.

The completion marks a historic feat of science diplomacy, bringing together scientists from across the Middle East and the wider region: Bahrain, Cyprus, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine and Turkey. The users of SESAME will be scientists, including graduate students, mostly based in universities and research institutes in the region.

SESAME has a unique mission for a medical research centre.

SESAME advertises itself as a widely available ‘user facility’. “Scientists, including graduate students, from universities and research institutes will typically visit the Centre for a week or two, twice or three times a year, to carry out experiments, frequently in collaboration with scientists from other centres/countries, and then return home to analyse the data they have obtained,” according to the lab’s press pack.

“In other words, SESAME will not be a source of brain drain; quite the contrary, not only will the scientists who visit SESAME bring back scientific expertise and knowledge, which they will share with their colleagues and students, but it will also create a motivating scientific environment that will encourage the region’s best scientists and technologists to stay in the region or to return if they have moved elsewhere.”

“It’s the only body outside of the UN that represents both Israel and Iran in the same room,” says Professor Christopher Llewellyn Smith, the president of the SESAME council, which governs the project. He is the leader of the project, as well as a theoretical physicist and director of energy research at Oxford University. He accomplished many other things in a long and illustrious career before his involvement with SESAME, including a stint at CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) as director general from 1994 to 1998.

“SESAME is modelled conceptually, and, to some extent, organisationally, on CERN, and has co-opted ex-director generals of CERN, who necessarily have wide international experience and know about big projects,” he explains. “SESAME is the first intergovernmental scientific organisation in the region; the experience I bring from CERN has been important and the role of president is very much hands-on, working with the directors.”

The centre was announced in 2002 after a UNESCO resolution was passed, and has taken over a decade to get up and running.

The facility can be used by researchers in a wide variety of disciplines, including biology, chemistry, geology, physics, medicine, material science and archaeology. SESAME is situated on a vast campus in the town of Allan, Jordan, 30km from the capital, Amman. Jordan was selected as the site in a competition among seven countries from the region.

“SESAME has two aims: to foster excellent science in the region, and to build bridges between people who in many cases have few contacts,” Llewellyn Smith says, explaining how the region is often seen as lacking in research organisations and structure, and how he believes the new centre could counter this.

“SESAME is helping to improve the situation by demonstrating that the people in the Middle East are fully capable of building a sophisticated scientific instrument, and collaborating across boundaries.”

Public health goals

SESAME is already producing valuable science for the region; there are several multilateral research projects under way, ranging from studying soil and air pollution in Jordan to finding a cure for breast cancer.

The laboratory also has targets to conduct locally relevant research. The majority of these targets focus on regional health concerns, including the study of certain pathogens that are common among SESAME member states. This includes the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), as well as several non-transferable diseases that disproportionately affect the region, such as cancer and diabetes.

MERS is an illness caused by a virus called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV), and has become a common problem in the region. Most MERS patients develop severe acute respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath. According to CDC, about three to four out of every ten patients reported with MERS have died.

Health officials first reported the disease in Saudi Arabia in September 2012. Through retrospective investigations, health officials later identified that the first known cases of MERS occurred in Jordan in April 2012. According to those same CDC statistics, so far, all cases of MERS have been linked through travel to, or residence in, countries in and near the Arabian Peninsula. The largest known outbreak of MERS outside the Arabian Peninsula occurred in South Korea in 2015. The outbreak was associated with a traveller returning from the Arabian Peninsula.

As well as MERS, teams are already using the leading technology on offer at SESAME for other public health research goals. “The SESAME infrared microspectroscopy beamline is scheduled to begin operations to work on MERS and breast cancer research projects. The beamline allows synchrotron radiation infrared (SRIR), microspectroscopy and imaging, with a capacity to help the medical research community even more. It can target new avenues of research; SRIR microspectroscopy has been recognised as a highly sensitive and specific analytical method with many applications, particularly in cancer research,” stated the team working on the project in an official announcement.

There will be a broad scientific programme, with particular strengths dependent on the proposals that the users submit.

“It has numerous advantages over traditional approaches to pathology. Armed with information on this subject, important details about the chemistry of diseased states can be obtained, allowing for drug characterisation and enhancement.”

Future endeavours

The research centre will also focus investigative work on pollution and other issues that could be beneficial to public health programmes. “A group associated with SESAME is already working with the Elettra synchrotron in Italy on soil pollution in the Jordan valley,” Llewellyn Smith explains.

“This work will continue at SESAME. Another group has expressed interest in a comparative investigation on hepatitis-C genotypes that are prevalent in different countries in the Middle East. There is also interest in characterisation of plants and plant extracts for possible pharmaceutical applications.”

“There will be a broad scientific programme, with particular strengths dependent on the proposals that the users submit. I hope that strengths will include studies of particular local interest, such as breast cancer and MERS, and perhaps some archaeological and cultural heritage studies.”

“SESAME will start with just two beamlines, but two more are under construction and should become available in the next two years,” Llewellyn Smith adds when asked about where he sees the project going in the future. “Plans for the following three beamlines are currently being revisited and discussed with potential users. When they become available will depend on the growth of the user community and the availability of funding.”

SESAME takes its objectives of “fostering scientific and technological excellence in the Middle East and neighbouring countries” seriously. No matter when the new machines arrive, the lab hopes to prevent or reverse the brain drain in the Middle East, enabling world-class scientific research in subjects ranging across the board and the region, and making the Middle East a scientific research powerhouse.

The scientists behind SESAME hope to foster groundbreaking medical research and a culture of collaboration between member nations.

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