With diabetes diagnoses increasing at an alarming rate across the Middle East, The University of Toledo and the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon have initiated one of the first international diabetes research centers in the Arab region.“Estimates indicate that the number of people in our region living with diabetes will double in the next two decades,” said Dr. Peter Dorman, president of the American University of Beirut. “At AUB, we recognize that inaction on our part is unthinkable when we have the capacity to counter the region’s diabetes epidemic by collaborating on research and education with esteemed partners such as The University of Toledo.”
Officials at UT and AUB recently signed a memorandum of understanding for a collaboration between the two entities in which faculty and staff at UT Medical Center will use their experience in the UT Center for Diabetes and Endocrine Research to help create a similar center at AUB: the Middle East Diabetes Research Center.
“The American University of Beirut is the Harvard of the Middle East,” said Dr. Sonia M. Najjar, UT professor and director of the Center for Diabetes and Endocrine Research. “For the AUB administration to choose us as their partner in this quest speaks a lot of our international position in diabetes research and their trust in our commitment to guide them in this process. My challenge is to meet these expectations while facing financial and regional limitations.”
The cause is particularly important for Najjar, who is originally from Lebanon and has been working toward this collaboration for nearly two decades. As a postdoctoral fellow in the Diabetes Branch at the National Institute of Health in 1993, she met Dr. Ibrahim Salti, a former deputy president of AUB and its current chief of endocrinology, and began discussing the need to develop a strong diabetes research base in the Middle East.
After she began working at UTMC, then the Medical College of Ohio, she founded the Center for Diabetes and Endocrine Research in 2006. One year later, she met the current dean of the AUB College of Medicine, Dr. Mohamed H. Sayegh, when he came from Harvard Medical School as an invited seminar speaker to deliver a lecture at UT.
She told him about the center at UT and her goals of a similar center at AUB, beginning the process of assessing what resources they had at AUB and what they still needed to build a solid diabetes research base there.
Najjar has been working with UT colleagues Dr. Dan Johnson, president emeritus, and Dr. Kristopher Brickman, associate professor and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine, and the deans of the medical colleges and the presidents of both institutions to initiate these efforts in developing the Middle East Diabetes Research Center at AUB, but there is still much to do.
Her plan in the first five years is to develop a PhD program in cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, modeled after the successful UT program, which she headed during its inception in 2007. To do this, she plans to bring one faculty member and one predoctoral student from AUB to UT each year for training and to generate collaborative studies of shared interest between scientists from both institutions.
By training individuals at UT who then can take their knowledge back to AUB, Najjar hopes to help establish a self-sustained and well-equipped diabetes center.
“It means a lot to me that I will be able to help develop in the Middle East an internationally recognized American-style research center that will lead diabetes research in that region in which diabetes incidence and severity are climbing,” Najjar said. “It would be a dream come true to stem the spread of this devastating disease by bringing the best of the U.S. medical system to that region.”
Najjar said UT is an ideal partner for AUB, because of a large Middle Eastern-American population in the Toledo and Michigan region. This partnership will establish the right infrastructure for scientists from both institutions to collaborate in identifying the genetic and environmental factors that lead to the more dramatic spread of diabetes in the Middle East.
“We have here in our area a large Middle Eastern-American community that derives from the same genetic pool as that in the Middle East, but manifests a milder form of diabetes and a relatively delayed onset of its complications,” Najjar explained. “It makes one question whether there are environmental factors that cause differences in the manifestation of the disease between the U.S. and the Middle East.”
UT also benefits from the partnership by expanding its research on diabetes and endocrinology, and elevating the UT Center for Diabetes and Endocrine Research on a global scale.
“I want to see The University of Toledo relevant internationally,” said Brickman, who also serves as the head of the UT Global Health Office. “Collaboration between the U.S. and the Middle East based on establishing a diabetes research and education center at AUB would accomplish that goal.”