Opinion: The Value of Collaborations in the Emerging and Developing World
Opinion: The Value of Collaborations in the Emerging and Developing World

Opinion: The Value of Collaborations in the Emerging and Developing World

Scientists can foster new talent, find new funding options, and tap into business opportunities by forging relationships between researchers in emerging, developing and developed nations.

Aug 20, 2018
Mohamed Boudjelal


There is no doubt that science is more advanced in Western institutions, followed by a few Asian countries. There is, at the same time, a plethora of skills, talents, and resources waiting to be explored in the emerging and developing world that could contribute to science innovation. The following are few ideas on how to forge such collaborations.

Joint research projects to exchange data and biological samples

A number of research areas, such as infectious disease, rare conditions, and personalized medicine, need a tight collaboration between the scientists in developed, emerging, and developing countries. These diseases are more prominent in the emerging and developing world, and scientists there have developed unique skills to collect data and bank samples. For instance, many vaccines against viruses such as Ebola were jointly created by scientists of the developed world who provided the know-how and researchers in the emerging world who tested them on patients.

In collaboration with scientists from the University of Iowa, the National Institutes of Health, and Guangzhou Medical University in China, we are carrying out a study to dissect the immune response against MERS-COV. At my institution, we collect samples from patients who have recovered, process them, carry out initial characterization, and send part of the samples to our colleagues in Iowa, Maryland, and Guangzhou for further work. The collaboration has already resulted in a publication in Science Immunology, with more to come. 

Rare diseases are another potential area for fruitful collaborations. In emerging and developing worlds, marriages among close relatives are comparatively common, providing opportunities to uncover rare diseases caused by novel mutations. Having joint research projects in this area between scientists in developed, emerging, and developing worlds would advance our understanding of disease biology, not just for rare diseases but for others that have similar pathophysiological phenotypes.

Personalized medicine and ethnicity-based therapy are also areas for potential collaboration. Most medicines have been discovered and developed in the industrialized world, while patient populations are largely outside these countries. Research collaborations are needed in preclinical and clinical studies to understand better how these drugs work in populations with different ethnic backgrounds.

Mentoring to fuel innovation and foster unique talents

Like budding scientists from any part of the world, those from emerging and developing nations have enthusiasm, talent, and dedication. Without a doubt, if these future scientists are properly mentored and supervised, they could generate transformative, innovative ideas. Thus, having joint supervision and mentoring by a scientist from a developed country and one from their native countries would help them realize their full potential. Moreover, most of these young scientists in the emerging world have scholarships to spend time in advanced institutions that include coverage for consumables, travel, and mentorship expenses. At King Abdullah International Medical Research Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, we just awarded a number of young scientists scholarships to study abroad during their PhDs. They have been selected through rigorous interviews to pursue research in different disciplines that include immunology, molecular biology, bioinformatics, population health, etc., and for whom we are looking to identify the best host universities and mentors. In addition, we look for collaborators for our existing research programs. Similar opportunities exist at other Saudi Arabian institutions such as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and KSA Industrial Cluster.

Institutional affiliations to tap into extra funding opportunities

There are a number of research funding agencies in Saudi Arabia, Brazil, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Algeria, Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore, Argentina, and many other countries. These funds are accessible to any scientist around the world with the condition that the scientist has an affiliation with a local institution and that part of the project is carried out in the funding country.

To have an affiliation with an institute in these countries is not complicated. You just need to identify an institute or research group working in a similar area and contact them to express an interest in collaboration and affiliation. The best venue to connect with scientists from these countries is during scientific conferences and events. You will find a warm welcome and get all the details on how to get an affiliation.

Alternatively, you could first visit the institute of your interest and spend time either to train for a short period or take sabbatical leave there. During this time, you will learn more about the host institute and build a true, fruitful collaboration.

Entrepreneurship to form biotech companies

In the emerging world there are a number of research discoveries that need to be marketed, but due to inexperience, many of these ideas stay unexplored. Having collaborations and partnerships with scientists from the developed world would definitely inject the know-how for patenting and marketing these ideas in a win-win situation.

Additionally, as scientific research in the emerging world explodes, such as in Saudi Arabia and Brazil, the need for biotech companies to produce basic research reagents and consumables is enormous, with a potentially enormous financial reward. These opportunities await the scientists who have the know-how to associate with their counterparts in the emerging world to form biotech companies for the production of basic research reagents such as lentiviruses, baculoviruses, cell isolation and culture reagents, research enzymes, and many other products. A number of countries including Saudi Arabia are putting special funds for this type of venture that could be accessed by anyone who would have a research product to be produced in that nation.

If more advice is needed, interested scientists can contact the author, Mohamed Boudjelal: boudjelalmo@ngha.med.sa.

Mohamed Boudjelal is the chair of Medical Research Core Facility and Platforms at King Abdullah International Medical Research Center in Riyadh.