Khalifa University biomedical engineering faculty are working to address some of the most pressing healthcare challenges in the UAE, linked to the genetic makeup and lifestyle of the local population — namely obesity, cancer and diabetes — through technology innovations and research.
A study assessing the involvement of genes in the incidence of obesity and diabetes among Emiratis, developed by a team from the Khalifa University Center for Biotechnology, was recently accepted for publication in the prestigious International Journal of Obesity.
Authored by post-doctoral researcher Dr. Wael Osman, Associate Professor Dr. Guan Tay, and Associate Professor and Director of the Khalifa University Center for Biotechnology Dr. Habiba Alsafar, the article reports on the outcome of their study, which is the largest to cover the effects of genes related to body size and height in Emiratis.
“We explored what part of the genome in Emiratis, with respect to their risks for type 2 diabetes, are similar to other population groups that have already been studied in depth, and where they differ. We found a relationship between some genes and obesity and blood glucose measures, providing clear evidence of their link to type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Osman explained.
In the UAE, the obesity rate has increased from 56.2% in 2000 by more 15.8% in 2008, placing the country towards the top end of the global obesity list. Diabetes is also high in the country, with 1 in every 5 individuals estimated to have the disease.
“We hope this research will encourage other institutions in the UAE and the Gulf region, to establish a consortium to study major health problems in the region, including obesity and type 2 diabetes. Larger studies will provide greater insights about the genes which influence human health problems in the local populations in a unique fashion,” Dr. Osman added.
Scientists now know that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to obesity and type 2 diabetes, however, the specific factors and their impact vary in different groups. This study showed that only some genes that are linked to development of obesity and type 2 diabetes in Caucasians and Asians also contribute to these conditions in the UAE’s population. However, the pattern of association is different.
In the UAE metabolic risks associated with a higher body mass index are the biggest contributing factor to disease and death, particularly from heart disease. The national screening program ‘Weqaya’ has found that 71% of screened Emiratis had at least one cardiovascular disease risk factor.
The team will continue to advance their research findings. They intend to work with relevant health officials to apply the lessons from their research in order to fill in the remaining gaps relating to the genetic risk profile of Emiratis.
Another group of Khalifa University researchers have advanced the development of a diagnostic a tool to predict the stress profile in the lower back of obese patients suffering from back pain, which will complement the information attained through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
A team composed of University of Alberta PhD student Tao Liu, Khalifa University Associate Chair of Biomedical Engineering Dr. Kinda Khalaf, University of Alberta researcher Sadegh Naserkhaki, and Khalifa University Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Dr. Marwan El-Rich, recently published a paper on their project titled “Load-Sharing in the Lumbosacral Spine in Neutral Standing and Flexed Postures – A Combined Finite Element and Inverse Static Study” in the Journal of Biomechanics.
“Our project, which is the first of its kind in the UAE, bridges a current scientific knowledge gap regarding the impact of obesity on the neutral and flexed spine and the pain such impacts cause,” Dr. El-Rich said. The UAE has a large and growing obese population, estimated at 31.7%, according to the latest World Health Organization figures, many of whom suffer from pain in the lower back from the extra strain on their spines.
Their research combines musculoskeletal modeling on the whole-body level with Finite Element Method (FEM) modeling — a numerical method for solving problems of engineering and mathematical physics — on spinal vertebra to develop a model that relates to a population and its physiology, incorporating obesity and lower back pain, and by developing a novel clinical diagnostic tool that complements existing imaging modalities.
The published research project findings are of value to the country’s healthcare sector, which is a strategic research focus of Khalifa University.
The next step for the team will be development and validation of a user-friendly interface diagnostic tool that can be used by clinicians for low back pain assessment and management.
Cancer is another known correlated illness with obesity that is posing a challenge to health authorities in the UAE, diagnosis and treatment of which can be enhanced with innovative science and engineering. In response to this need, Dr. Anas Alazzam, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Khalifa University, has developed a novel device to screen for cancer in the blood of patients, which was recently highlighted in several reputable journals.
Cancer is the third leading cause of death in Abu Dhabi and it is estimated that 12 people are diagnosed with cancer every day in the UAE, amounting to around 4,500 new cancer cases yearly, according to the Abu Dhabi Health Authority. The risk factors for cancer include lifestyle (which can include obesity, smoking, inactivity), environment (like air pollution), viruses, dietary habits (processed foods), and genetics.
The research team in this project includes several faculty members and two graduate students. Dr. Amjad Gawanmeh from the ECCE department contributed to the design and verification of the microfluidic device. In addition, Falah Alhammadi who is currently a MSc student in the mechanical engineering department contributed in developing a novel microdevice for separation of cancer cells. The results are published in the Journal of Separation Science and the IEEE Bio-engineering for Smart Technologies conference.
The innovative microdevices developed by Dr. Alazzam and his research team utilize magnetics, sound waves, and electric polarization to separate a minute fraction of cancer cells from a blood sample. The team tested the device using a breast cancer cell line, and say it should be able to separate other cancer cell lines as well.
“This research is unique because we are trying to accurately separate very few cancer cells from the blood samples using microdevices we have developed at the MEMS lab at KU, which are novel and have demonstrated good accuracy” Dr. Alazzam explained.
Dr. Alazzam’s innovative cancer-focused research has twice received the Al Jalila Foundation’s seed grant, which are given to researchers working to address important questions about health and disease in the UAE. He has also filed a patent on new technology for the device to pattern using reduced graphene oxide (rGO) electrodes.
“Going forward, we will work on further improving the accuracy of separation, increasing the separation speed, and developing microdevices for single cell characterization. The long term goal of the research is to develop a point of care device for screening of cancer cells using blood samples,” he shared.
This innovative biotechnology project is part of Khalifa University’s efforts to support the goals of the UAE Vision 2021, which have set key performance indicators for the country for prevalence of diabetes, deaths from cardiovascular disease, prevalence of obesity in children and deaths from cancer. The university’s faculty, students, researchers and collaborators are working together to illuminate the health risks of the local population, improve diagnosis, and monitor health impacts, to achieve a healthier future for the country.