Genes unite a divided Cyprus

The Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics boosts its research and patient care – for Greek and Turkish Cypriots

When Joseph Ioannou was six months old, doctors at Nicosia’s Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics diagnosed him as suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, a disorder that affects motor neurons in the spinal cord and leads to muscle weakness. It happened that, in a city divided by an invasion that took place almost two decades before his birth, Ioannou was born a Greek Cypriot. To the Institute’s doctors, it didn’t matter. “Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have similar diseases,” says Professor Leonidas Phylactou, a geneticist who is the Institute’s chief executive. “It’s part of our mission to treat both communities.”

For 29 years, Ioannou has received that vital care at the Institute, where he sees a neurologist, as well as lung and heart specialists, and a nutritionist. He also visits for regular sessions with a physiotherapist. In that time he has completed studies in computer science and founded his own business repairing PCs. Engaged to be married, he dreams of having a family. “If I wasn’t treated at the Institute, I would be in much worse condition,” he says. “With the guidance and follow-up of the Institute, I have a better quality of life. I’m productive. I can have dreams and make plans for my future.”

“Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have similar diseases. It’s part of our mission to treat both communities.”

Ioannou is one of 12,000 patients on the rolls of the Institute, which stands on a hillside in Nicosia, close to the Green Line that divides the island between the area under the control of the Republic of Cyprus and the territory occupied by Turkey since 1974. The Institute carries out 40,000 lab tests each year, battling genetic disorders known all around the world, such as multiple sclerosis, as well as some that have been particularly prevalent in Cyprus, like the blood disorder thalassemia. Founded in 1990, the Institute is also a centre of research into treatments for these diseases. Most importantly, it’s a life-saver. “At best, life would be very, very difficult for these people without the Institute,” says Phylactou, who is 47. “I dare say that some of them wouldn’t live.”

Beyond health, a social impact

Like many important medical facilities, the Institute’s impact spreads beyond the health of its patients. Its effect on the social and economic life of Cyprus is significant, because it keeps people healthy enough to work, and prevents them becoming a burden on their families and the state. The Institute’s pre-natal testing for thalassemia, for example, has brought the rate of this disease “down close to zero now” in new-born children, says Phylactou.

To develop its important work further, the Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics is undergoing a EUR 40 million expansion programme that will upgrade its research capacity and revamp the facilities for treating and rehabilitating patients. The EIB is financing EUR 26 million of the programme with a loan that aims mainly to support the Institute’s research and development work. “This is a very important centre for research,” says Nicos Yiambides, the EIB’s Cyprus loan officer. “It’s also a very good thing that it works with both communities in Cyprus.”

The EIB, the EU bank, has financed a series of medical and research facilities in Cyprus as part of a bigger campaign to boost the island’s economy, which was devastated by a banking crisis in 2012 and 2013. That includes the German Oncology Centre, which opened in autumn 2017 in Limassol, financed by the EIB through a local intermediary.

The EIB Group has signed EUR 1.7 billion in financing for Cyprus over the last five years, including big research-oriented loans, infrastructure financing, and loans aimed at small businesses. Loans in 2017 alone totalled EUR 333 million, equivalent to 1.8% of the island’s GDP, the highest proportion of any EU Member State.stem.”