By Dr. Kambiz Shekdar, PhD

      As a Rockefeller University trained bioscientist and the WestView News Science Editor, I have the privilege of sharing my journey. On January 11, 2023, a non-addictive pain killer discovered using cellular technology I invented at Rockefeller was the subject of an IPO filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In this article, I describe the underlying technology and why I, a die-hard New Yorker, believe the UAE is the best place to realize its full potential.

Biological science deals with the human cell. Cells that exactly mimic human disease are fundamental for discovery of new drugs. However, in a sea of cells engineered to model disease, only a tiny number are suitable. Detecting and isolating the optimal cells is extraordinarily difficult.

My PhD advisor, the late Gunter Blobel, MD, PhD, 1999 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at The Rockefeller University, is the father of contemporary cell biology. As a graduate student in Gunter’s lab for eight years, I toiled day and night using all the tedious and unreliable traditional methods to craft needed cells.

Rockefeller University biotech inventor Dr. Kambiz Shekdar speaks at Dubai Science Park in the UAE. Photo credit: DSP

My innovation was an idea to automate and improve the system. The University sold back the patent rights to Gunter and I because ‘the crazy idea would never work,’ but we did bring it to work. Now successfully commercially validated in diverse businesses and fields of use, including previously out-of-reach goals like discovery of the non-addictive pain blocker at the center of the upcoming IPO, the technology opens the floodgates to usher in an era of accelerated drug discovery. But it is the UAE, not the U.S. where this story began, that knows how to say, “Open Sesame.”

The American Experiment began upon the discovery of this new continent 500 years ago. On a different continent, the Emirati Experiment began when seven Arab emirates united 50 years ago. From my travels in the UAE over four exploratory trips in 2022, I saw how the leadership of the UAE is opening new frontiers. Other countries also have oil wealth, but it is the UAE that has utilized it best to advance its nation and economy to a mind-boggling degree. In my estimation, the poles of the world are changing. The UAE has created the conditions to realize the full potential of transformative technologies.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are two of the emirates of the United Arab Emirates. Compared to NYC, Dubai, like Times Square, is an exciting international destination. Meanwhile Abu Dhabi, like the West Village, is a beating heart of local life. The two city-states are separated by a one hour and a half taxi drive.

Mostly desert a little more than 20 years ago, the UAE erected the mega cities literally out of the sand. Now the oil rich country is developing its non-oil sector where biotechnology is just one of the next gushers in its sight.

According to Catarina Caulfield, Industry-to-Campus Connector at the Office of Career Exploration and Success at Rutgers University, international students no longer singularly prioritize the United States. Today, European and Asian cities are successfully competing for the world’s brightest talent as well. According to Wikipedia, “research shows that there are significant economic benefits of human capital flight for the migrants themselves and for the receiving country.”

The UAE is extending this trend to the business community using various economic free zones that offer incentives of all kinds. In addition, subject to individual negotiations, government-linked groups like Abu Dhabi Investment Office may reimburse foreign businesses 20% of their operating expenses in the UAE.

Everything and everyone from the government to sovereign wealth funds to heads of business incubators are all pulling in the same direction.

Technology park at the Masdar City Free Zone in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Photo credit: Kambiz Shekdar.

On August 17, 2022, the UAE’s sovereign wealth fund Mubadala set up a $10 Billion fund for tech deals. “The move comes as Abu Dhabi—a city that’s among the few globally to manage over $1 trillion in sovereign wealth capital —ratchets up efforts to plow oil revenue into the technology sector and diversify its economy,” reported Private Equity Insider.

On September 13, 2022, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, Chairman of The Executive Council of Dubai and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Dubai Future Foundation (DFF), launched the Dubai Research and Development (R&D) Program during a meeting at the Dubai Future Foundation. According to the release, “the Program outlines Dubai’s top priorities in research, development, and innovation, and regulates projects, initiatives and legislations, as well as funding and investment in this area. It also aims to increase domestic spending on such projects and maximize the engagement of the private sector in launching and funding R&D projects.”

Bilal Kaafarani, former head of Global Innovation at The Coca-Cola Company, says such scale of investment is in itself a form of innovation. In his book, “Breaking Away: How great leaders create innovation that drives sustainable growth—and why others fail,” Kaafarani provides the the example of Emirates Airlines:

“Emirates reported net income of $964 million through March 2010. Then it turned around and ordered thirty-two more A3802’s valued at $11 billion, giving the company more superjumbos than any other carrier. To put this growth in perspective, it took Lufthansa forty years to get thirty 747s in the air.” The UAE is investing in tech in the same big way today. For full disclosure, Bilal and I previously negotiated a strategic research collaboration between The Coca-Cola Company and my first biotechnology company, Chromocell Corporation, where I served as Chief Scientific Officer.

When it comes to attracting talent, Dubai Science Park Director Marwan Abdulaziz put the government’s role this way:

“In terms of attractiveness and competition, obviously, this needs to be driven by the government to make sure that we are attractive enough because let’s be honest, we’re competing with other regions, other countries, other places also want the best talent, the best technology, and I think that is an important role that the government needs to play and has to continue playing.” Abdulaziz’s remarks made during an October 21, 2022 event on “The Future of UAE Healthcare” at Dubai Science Park are available at this link: https://www.youtube.com/shorts/YJOneZ9bkjY

According to a January 4, 2023 report in Nature (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-05543-x),  “relative to earlier eras, recent papers and patents do less to push science and technology in new directions” and “although the past century witnessed an unprecedented expansion of scientific and technological knowledge, there are concerns that innovative activity is slowing.”

It is the UAE that is taking the steps needed to support big inventors, like Thomas Edison and The Wright Brothers, not to invent brighter candles and faster cars, but to change the world as we know it.

By contrast, the U.S. grant making process has become so arduous that researchers have been reduced to paper pushers, while the federal science-by-committee approach breeds me-too science and has no crystal ball for breakthroughs. I recall my late mentor Dr. Blobel recounting his innovative research proposals which went on to win him both the Nobel Prize and King Faisal Prize were roundly dismissed by NIH review panels.

There is also a supply and demand mismatch in the U.S. with more technology than we can effectively utilize. Even with venture capital funding, the result is that more predictable technologies that offer incremental advances are funded while bolder, disruptive and therefore also risker but transformative technologies that shoot for the stars are often passed up.

Yet shooting for the stars is what is needed. Consider that currently, the average FAILURE RATE IN THE PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY FOR THE DISCOVERY AND DEVELOPMENT OF NEW DRUGS IS A STAGGERING 98%! This points to a dire need for improvements at all stages of the process. It is a complete condemnation of business as usual.

This brings me back to the IPO and why I am moving the promising science that made it possible to the UAE. The pain blocker that is the subject of the Chromocell Therapeutic’s filing for an initial public offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission was discovered and developed using Chromovert® Technology. Transformative biotechnologies like Chromovert® exist, however high set-up cost and a threat to entrenched teams who fear obsolescence remain as barriers to entry.

There is no legacy biopharma industry in the UAE, no dinosaurs to shove aside. Stakeholders in the UAE can freely cherry-pick from their choice of next-generation disruptive technologies to leap-frog the competition. Entire new pharmaceutical companies—bigger and better than Pfizer ever could be—can be created overnight, exactly like the UAE built its mega cities.

Chromovert® is not a one-trick-pony, but a multi-use research engine to discover new products in numerous businesses and diverse fields of use. In addition to its use to discover non-addictive pain blockers behind the upcoming IPO, Chromovert® was used in natural flavors research collaborations with The Coca-Cola Company, Kraft Foods and Nestle to discover rare natural taste enhancing ingredients for use to cut salt and sugar in the diet. From applications in pain management, to flavors research to developing a broadly applicable curing elusive disease like HIV/AIDS and beyond, Chromovert® is a true platform technology. Other applications include cell therapy, biologics production, crop engineering and stem cell science.

Based on my discussions with stakeholders in the UAE, we envision creation of “Emirati Cell Bio” as a new jointly owned entity to ramp up the discovery engine. The United States ramped up DNA sequencing, once that was automated, to produce the first draft of the human genome as part of the “Human Genome Project.” Emirati Cell Bio is being created to for “Drug Discovery at Scale”™  to yield numerous drug candidates for commercialization at once, each of them with a greater overall likelihood of success compared to current 98% failure rates. Why should the FDA approve only 20 to 50 new medical drugs a year when countless more are needed?

One of the world’s top three national genome sequencing projects is the Emirati Genome Project in the UAE. This endeavor provides a wealth of genetic information. By actioning all that data into personalized and regional medicine, Emirati Cell Bio stands to advance the goals of personalized medicine. Over time, the UAE may export and franchise the same model as Saudi Cell Bio, Nigeria Cell Bio, British Cell Bio, American Cell Bio, etc.

Moreover, the Middle East has a population of 467 million, yet no significant biopharma or biotech capabilities outside of Israel. COVID especially revealed the resulting inequities in the world’s capabilities and response. According to Alex Costa, Senior Health Advisor at UNICEF, this resulted in a push among peer NGOs to increase and enhance biopharma capabilities worldwide for more equitable responses in the face of future biomedical calamities. Expansion of biopharma in the UAE is a necessary progression that will benefit the region, its people, and the world.

UAE also has a wealth of human talent and capital. Nationals from approximately 200 countries flock to the UAE for greater opportunities. Recent rule changes now allow virtually anyone to visit for a period of six months, where you automatically obtain a temporary work visa while looking for permanent work. 90% of the population in the UAE comes from abroad; only 10% are locals. The cultural diversity I witnessed in the UAE makes NYC feel like Pittsburgh.

Unlike America which is a melting pot where everyone becomes American, the UAE is a melting pot with “meaty chunks,” as Stephen Severance, Director of Growth in the Masdar City Free Zone in Abu Dhabi, nicely puts it.

I can still taste the tender chunks of Pakistani fish curry hand-held between my fingers like how you eat Pakistani food, the Indian coriander soup with buttery paratha bread and fresh pomegranate juice, the Egyptian grilled shrimp and seafood feast, the extra lemony “Beiruti” hummus, succulent lamb shank and Lebanese mixed grill, the Persian Ghormeh Sabzie and tea, the Turkish coffee (I highly recommend Maison Samira Maatouk). In drives between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, your driver might stop for some “Karak” on the way, which I highly recommend, a sugary sweet, cardamom-flavored jolt of ginger spiced bullet tea.

Beyond its international demographics, there is also a Middle Eastern style and flow to greetings and meetings. Introductory meetings scheduled for 30 minutes expand past three or sometimes four hours, depending on if you find common ground. Original agendas, objectives and ideas shift and expand to reflect each other more tightly and firmly as a result. Goodbye back-to-back half-hour Zooms.

This business style immediately seemed warmer and more familiar to me, perhaps because of my own family heritage coming from the Middle East (I was born in Tehran, Iran and grew up in Tehran, Karachi, London, and Hong Kong before moving to the United States where I currently live in New York City). However, I suspect the customs of this ancient trade route will feel equally as warm and welcoming to anyone who is open to it.

In the UAE, I witnessed a veritable diversity of the world’s humanity building a new future. I saw the cities the UAE built from out of the sand. I heard its vision for science in Marwan Abdulaziz’s comments at Dubai Science Park. I am hooked on the promise of the Emirati Experiment as it turns its winning formula to biotechnology. As a New Yorker, biotech entrepreneur and global citizen, sign me up!

Last but not least, readers of my column in WestView News know about my efforts at Research Foundation to Cure AIDS (RFTCA) to use Chromovert® Technology to develop a cure for AIDS on a not-for-profit basis (See http://westviewnews.org/2022/04/03/worlds-third-aids-patient-cured/gcapsis/).

My colleagues and I donated our technology to RFTCA in the field of curing AIDS. I hope the upcoming IPO will help us find the champions we need to create the groundswell of support that is still needed to cure AIDS worldwide.

In this article we spoke about incremental innovation versus innovation that shoots for the stars. The use of existing AIDS medications as “PrEP” to prevent HIV infection is a great new use of existing tools, and a prime example of incremental innovation. With treatment and prevention alone HIV/AIDS will fester forever (See http://westviewnews.org/2019/09/02/wild-west-ad-culture-on-facebook-targets-youth/gcapsis/).

By adding truly groundbreaking innovations like a global cure alongside treatment and prevention, the world can do more than live with HIV, we can wipe AIDS off the face of the earth. By now at least five people have been cured of AIDS using stem cell strategies. Chromovert® holds promise to build a broadly available cure based on the science underlying these index cases.

I have searched high and low but I cannot even find one single AIDS activist who is championing a cure. It is no longer the science that is limiting a cure for AIDS, or for that matter any number of additional diseases. But it is time for us to learn from the UAE’s example and prioritize the innovative technologies needed to deliver new medicines and cures.

Rockefeller University alumnus and biotech inventor Dr. Kambiz Shekdar, PhD is co-founder and former Chief Scientific Officer of Chromocell Corporation, President of Research Foundation to Cure AIDS and CEO of Secondcell Bio. Contact kambiz.shekdar@secondcellbio.com

INVENTED AT THE ROCKEFELLER UNIVERSITY, CHROMOVERT® TECHNOLOGY PERMITS HIGH-SPEED PURIFICATION OF DESIRED CELLS. 1) One or more target genes are added to cells to generate a mixed population of cell some of which contain target genes (or a mixed population of cells naturally expressing target genes is provided). 2) Fluorescent probes known as Molecular Beacons are added to the cells. 3) Exceedingly high expressing cells are detected and isolated using a process known as Cell Sorting to test and sift through millions of individual cells. 4) Robotic and automated methods are used to culture isolated cells for testing to characterize and select final optimally performing cellular clones. A scientific publication on the technology is available at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10529-021-03101-5. Photo Credit: Chromovert Inventor Dr. Kambiz Shekdar. 

 

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