Qatari Birth Cohort (QBiC) is currently conducting a study that aims to assess the synergetic role of environmental exposure and genetic factors in the development of chronic diseases.

Touted as a first-of-its-kind in the Middle East, the QBiC study is currently being conducted by Qatar Biobank, part of Qatar Foundation Research, Development and Innovation. The uniqueness of this study comes from the environmental protocols that have been set up to understand gene-environment interactions associated with health impact.

To date, a total of 216 pregnant women were observed as part of Qatar’s first mother-childbirth cohort study. The study aims to examine how factors such as environment, genetics, nutrition, and social aspects affect their baby’s health.

Preliminary findings show that 70% of the women are overweight; 37% have gestational diabetes; 20% have thyroid dysfunction; 10% reported psychological illness; and nine percent were diagnosed with hypertension.

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According to Dr Eleni Fthenou, a scientist at Qatar Biobank, no one has done this before in the region, specifically for birth cohort studies.

There have been smaller studies completed or ongoing in the Middle East area with a small number of participants, but nothing that is as holistic as ours.

The QBiC study is now in its pilot phase, and has recruited 216 pregnant women and 76 fathers-to-be. The study aims to recruit 3,000 families – mothers, fathers and children – and follow the journey of the child until they are five years old.

One of the main strengths of the study will be the large number of participants. The data collected from this study sample will allow for research on multiple outcomes.

Unlike other birth cohort studies done in the Middle East that were built on specific research hypothesis, the QBiC study will provide an excellent opportunity to address a broad range of research questions using innovative approaches, says Dr Fthenou.

This project aims the in-depth investigation of the impact of genome-exposure synergy in the establishment of adverse birth outcomes and chronic diseases development. And because of this, we can cover multiple outcomes.

The research team at Qatar Biobank has developed well-designed protocols for data collection with a focus to get harmonised data for future collaborations with other international birth cohorts. And although there are multiple birth cohort studies in Europe, the United States, or Australia, the Arab population is a minority in these studies.

Unfortunately, Arab genomes are severely under-represented in genomic studies globally but Qatar, through its various initiatives, is putting Arab genome on the map of genomic research and science, and therefore the QBiC study has a large Arab population sample.

In the QBiC study, we have 31 nationalities at the moment. We recruit Qataris and long-term residents – those who have been living in Qatar for 15 years or more. Qataris represent 28% of the sample population, while long-term Arab residents are at 54%, and other nationalities stand at 18%.

And while the QBiC study was ready to move to the second phase, the COVID-19 situation has caused a delay. In the second phase, the team is expected to collect data from newborns and toddlers, with mothers also being tracked with their babies in the first month after delivery.

We will get data such as whether the mother is breastfeeding – what type of breastfeeding (exclusive or predominant); we will have the mother checked for postpartum depression; and follow-up on the baby at six months, one year, two years, and finally at four years.

All the collected data will be associated with multiple health outcomes at different timepoints. Dr Fthenou explained that it is a unique epidemiological study that will allow them to assess how various types of environmental exposures co-exist. Novel tools and methods will be implemented to obtain estimates of individual environmental exposures, including outdoor and indoor air pollution.

Various birth cohorts in different parts of the world have set the ground to better understanding of the underlying causes of rare but important childhood disorders, such as autism. And while it may seem obvious that pregnant women and babies are regularly checked by doctors, such a study paves the way for an emerging medical model – precision medicine – wherein customised healthcare is provided by predicting how an individual will respond to a drug or therapy based on their genome.

For updates and more information about the ongoing study, visit qatarbiobank.org.qa.