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Gulf accelerates longevity push with AI and healthtech

Gulf longevity healthtech AI Creative Commons/Pixnio
The Gulf has all the ingredients to be a big player in drug discovery according to experts
  • UAE and Saudi Arabia take the lead
  • Longevity sector valued at $26.5 trillion
  • Ambitious R&D and drug discovery targets

The Gulf is establishing itself at the forefront of the world’s fast-growing “longevity” sector.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular are making strides in the global race to prolong life, investing in health technologies that can predict medical risk and help develop medicines. 

They are investing in healthtech, building laboratories to support research and development (R&D) in diagnostics and preventive drugs, and inviting companies and institutions to set up operations in the Gulf.  

Crossing the fields of biotech, pharmaceuticals, fintech, AI and robotics, the longevity sector is about using technology to tackle the so-called diseases of ageing.

These ailments – cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s – have replaced infectious diseases as humanity’s leading causes of death. 

Today, the sector is estimated to be worth $26.5 trillion and it is expected to reach $33 trillion by 2026, according to analytics company Deep Knowledge Group. 

The sector involves more than 50,000 companies globally, over 10,000 investors and in excess of 1,000 R&D hubs, its research showed.

The Middle East could play an important role in its future. The longevity industry in the UAE alone is projected to grow by 8.5 percent annually to $32 billion by 2026, according to a study by Ageing Analytics Agency, part of Deep Knowledge.

The Gulf Longevity Initiative is another think tank set up by Deep Knowledge, looking at how to expand the sector in the region.

It brings together governments, researchers, and pharmaceutical and other companies that use technology to improve public health and prolong lifespans. 

Jim Mellon, co-founder and chairman of Juvenescence, a UK-based life sciences company, tells AGBI that the opportunities for the longevity industry in the Gulf are “evident and compelling”.

“Lifespan in the Arabian Gulf has caught up with the West in the past couple of decades. This is due to rising affluence and better healthcare,” he says.

“However, the fast-food diet of many people in the region has resulted in an explosion in diabetes, which brings challenges. Likewise, the rising age of populations in the region needs a whole new response.”

Libreshot/Martin Vorel
Increased consumption of fast food in the region has led to ‘an explosion in diabetes’
Medical manufacturing

Recent initiatives to develop the sector include Saudi Arabia’s establishment in 2021 of the Hevolution Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that provides grants and early-stage investments supporting research and entrepreneurship in life sciences and technology. 

In September, the kingdom announced plans to invest SR500 million ($133 million) to build a 42,000 sq m vaccine and medicine manufacturing hub in Sadeer City. 

In the UAE, Abu Dhabi is opening two facilities specialising in R&D around the science of ageing.

The first will be the region’s first “biocomputing innovation research” laboratory, based in Masdar City and aiming to research critical life science issues such as age-related illnesses.

It is a joint venture between Abu Dhabi’s Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence and biotech company BioMap.

Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence will be home to the region's first biocomputing innovation labMBZUAI
Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence will be home to the region’s first biocomputing innovation research lab

The second project is a biopharma facility in Abu Dhabi to manufacture drugs to treat complex illnesses such as cancer, infectious diseases and inflammatory and autoimmune disorders.

The facility is a partnership between Abu Dhabi sovereign investor Mubadala Investment Company and California-based National Resilience. 

“There are good reasons to believe Abu Dhabi will be successful in not only taking a slice of the global longevity market, but also in shaping clinical offerings in the field,” says Dr Sven-Olaf Vathje, partner and head of the health and life sciences practice at Oliver Wyman in India, the Middle East and Africa.

Funding sources ranging from direct government to venture capital and philanthropy have enabled Abu Dhabi to roll out projects such as the Department of Health’s Genome Program, which works on longevity data opportunities.

The UAE also plans to establish the country’s first robotic biobank, to advance medical research on chronic diseases and pandemics. 

AI and robotics aid drug research

Another recent development in Abu Dhabi was the February opening of Hong Kong-based health technology firm Insilico Medicine’s first laboratory in the Gulf.

Insilico is backed by the venture capital arm of Saudi oil company Aramco. The new laboratory aims to use Insilico’s AI platform to find drugs that can prolong human life. 

“The Middle East has never developed a drug that is being used all over the world. It’s not Switzerland, the US or the UK,” says chief executive Alex Zhavoronkov.

“But my hope is that, using AI and robotics, the region can be a big player in drug discovery.”

Coat, Clothing, PersonSuppliued/Insilico
Insilico chief executive Alex Zhavoronkov

The Middle East and North Africa’s market for AI in drug discovery is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 47.1 percent to reach $548.7 million by 2029, according to Data Bridge Market Research. 

However, there is a way to go, says James Peyer, chief executive of US-based Cambrian Biopharma: “A key challenge is how we run clinical trials to approve these drugs. That’s the barrier to investment.” 

In the meantime, there are plenty of businesses seeking to grow regional healthtech offerings. Last month, US-listed Allurion Technologies launched an AI-powered app to combat obesity in the UAE. 

The scale of growth possible in the region’s longevity sector is huge, but a clear regulatory and financial ecosystem must be developed for it to reach its potential, the experts said.

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