Biomedical Computing in the Arab World: Unlocking the Potential of a Growing Research Community

25 May 2021

Health challenges remain one of the long-standing issues in the Arab region but biomedical computing research is one way to tackle these challenges. 

 

By Dr. Ahsan H. Khandoker

 

Read Arabic story here.

 

A combination of factors is driving the growth in demand for healthcare in the Middle East, including aging populations, longer life expectancies, and sedentary lifestyles that lead to an increase in obesity, cancer, and diabetes.

 

Thanks to recent advances in computing technology, biomedical computing has become one of the most influential research areas worldwide. There has been an explosion in the volume of biomedical data generated by the technologies involved in modern healthcare, but these volumes of data pose great analytical challenges in the quest to infer the knowledge buried within.

 

Researchers across the Arab region have successfully advanced a diverse spectrum of biomedical computing applications, as well as stimulating commercial interest. In an article published in Communications of the ACM, a journal for the Association of Computing Machinery, my colleagues and I shed light on these notable research efforts and demonstrate how this research addresses healthcare issues in the region. We focus on three main areas of biomedical computing: biomedical imaging, biomedical signal analysis, and bioinformatics.

 

Dr. Ahsan H. Khandoker

Biomedical image analysis has been used extensively in the Arab world due to the region’s strong prevalence of diseases that rely on imaging techniques for accurate diagnosis. Across the region, numerous research groups have published work in this area, using various machine learning techniques. Research includes localization of cardiac structures using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computer-aided diagnosis for understanding tumor behavior, and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease using diffusion tensor images. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, many researchers have also proposed methods for fast and accurate CT image segmentation, which is crucial to the diagnosis of Covid-19.

 

Biomedical signal analysis is another area that is key, given the advances in the technology of recording different physiological signals from the human body. These signals can be used in diagnosing various diseases as well as modulating the function of different organs. The Khalifa University Biomedical Signal Processing research group is developing non-invasive fetal phonocardiogram, as well as adult electrocardiogram (ECG) signal processing techniques to prevent stillbirths and sudden cardiac deaths.

 

Cardiovascular disease represents a leading cause of death in the Arab region, as well as worldwide, and the KU team is proud to contribute to the global research efforts to diagnose and predict cardiac arrhythmia complications. The team has developed a new device presenting a novel algorithm to predict a heart attack long before its onset, and successfully developed the first proof-of-concept, low-cost phonocardiogram sensor that can detect fetal heart sounds and give a reliable estimation of the fetal heart rate and its variability.

 

Brain signal analysis is another notable research direction pursued in biomedical computing applications. Researchers have identified and characterized the brain networks associated with cognitive deficits in patients, with neurological pathologies such as Alzheimer’s disease understood to be caused by alterations in these brain networks. This research could complement current Alzheimer’s Disease diagnostic metrics, especially at early stages of the disease.

 

Another study has proposed a technique to assess the mental capacity to preserve attention for long durations, with the technique able to monitor changes in the communication patterns among different brain regions with reduced attention. Biomedical signal analysis research in the region has resulted in influential and diverse contributions that aim to resolve multiple technical challenges in the field and address several population health issues.

 

Researchers in the field of bioinformatics have leveraged high-performance computational methods to tackle hereditary diseases prevalent in the region. There have been multiple efforts to develop national genome programs, with the projects focusing on unravelling the mutations responsible for inherited disorders in the population. The Emirati project, for example, has characterized 1,000 individual genomes with aspirations to eventually cover the entire population of the country. This bioinformatics research has the potential to dramatically enhance the quality of life of millions of people around the Arab region.

 

Built upon the success demonstrated in different biomedical computing tracks, the Arab region has witnessed a strong momentum for entrepreneurial activities in many sectors, for example, the work of the KU Biomedical Signal Processing research group that resulted in a UAE-based start-up company licensed to commercialize their phonogram technology for fetal wellbeing at home, called Medical Advanced Research Project (MARP ).

 

Research in biomedical computing is stimulating the budding culture of entrepreneurship and new ventures across the region, opening avenues of development that could magnify the outcomes of the biomedical computing research community in the region. Much of this work is being undertaken by Khalifa University’s Healthcare Engineering Innovation Center (HEIC) and Biotechnology Center (BTC).

 

Dr. Ahsan H. Khandoker is an Associate Professor of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Khalifa University.