By Melanie Swan
Biomedical research is booming at Khalifa University, which is carving out a niche for itself as a regional centre for innovation in the field.
Prof Tod Laursen, the university’s president, said it had encouraged its first batch of undergraduates to get more involved in research through various initiatives, such as travelling abroad and working alongside active academics at the institution.
“We’ve really had the students in places where great medical research is being done around the world,” he said. “Now, as a result, a lot of them are really turned on to research.”
He said this was a priority because a planned medical school at the university has been delayed, and could take a few more years to launch.
“I didn’t want them to be disadvantaged by the fact the MD programme has been delayed,” he said.
Biomedical engineering is still an emerging field and Prof Laursen said there was still work to be done to educate future students as to its value in medical device development and genetic research.
“Hospitals are thinking of them as technicians so it’s typical of the challenge we have here with some new fields.” he said. “At least before the medical school starts, we will have some research results. We’ve built a good faculty in a short period of time and have a new chair coming from Ireland.”
The university has support in other areas of research from companies including Etisalat, Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation and the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation.
“These relationships continue to be important,” said Prof Laursen, who is in talks with the likes of Advanced Technology Investment Company relating to semiconductor research.
“There will be a dedicated lab on the new campus for nuclear research paid for by the federal authorities,” he said. Partnerships with the aerospace companies Boeing, Cassidian and Lockheed are vital for students who had been interns at those companies and worked on projects that interested them.
There were still many misconceptions about what biomedical engineering is, said Dr Kinda Khalaf, head of the department.
“People still don’t know enough about it and the majority of hospitals still think our graduates are going to be technicians, but that’s not what it is. We do everything from genetics to robotics and are very multidisciplinary – sitting between engineering, medicine and science.”
Because of the misperception, just 3 per cent of the undergraduates are men.
“We are looking at current health challenges, with a particular focus on the UAE, so everything from type 2 diabetes to neuromuscular deficiencies from the likes of consanguinity,” Dr Khalaf said. “We plan to look at stroke victims, patients with movement or rehabilitation challenges, Parkinson’s disease and children with cerebral palsy. We want to devise strategies to help these people with technological devices.”
Dr Habiba Al Safar is one of the academics focusing on the genetics of diabetes. She and her team have discovered two gene types which prove that treating Arabs with the conventional Caucasian-researched protocols can be ineffective. While the genes of each are similar, there is too much variation for a singular treatment to be effective.
“Also, drug efficacy will vary from one person to another so we are looking at a more individualised means of drug delivery,” she said.
Dr Al Safar has been working on her project since 2008, and has interviewed 28,000 Emiratis and taken samples from 4,500. Until now, only two studies have been done on the genetics of type 2 diabetes in the local population, one in five of whom suffers from the condition.
“This gets down to both treatment and prevention,” Dr Khalaf said. “We can’t treat it if we don’t know which genes are responsible.”
There is still much public education to do, Dr Al Safar said.
“Most of the people I interviewed think they got it from their family and they can’t do anything about it. But for most, it comes down to an unhealthy and sedentary lifestyle.” (The National)