Science issue: the UAE’s innovators

A look at some of the scientists in the UAE who are hard at work finding innovative solutions to society’s most pressing issues.

Lihadh Al Gazali, professor and consultant in clinical genetics and paediatrics at the department of paediatrics at UAE University in Al Ain. Ravindranath K / The National
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Dr Lutfi Al Basha

A pacemaker that doesn’t run out of battery power, autonomous circuits that can be implanted into the human body to monitor vital signs and supercharged nanobots that can be injected into the bloodstream to target cancer cells – when Dr Lutfi Al Basha, an assistant professor in electrical engineering at the American University of Sharjah, and his research team’s energy-harvesting circuitry come to fruition, medical technology and wireless sensors will be self-powered and independent of a battery backup.

His team at the university, sponsored by the Semiconductor Research Corporation and Mubadala Technologies, began working on an efficient harvester technology in 2011 and are now in the final stages of the design of their circuit board. The next step is to test their chip in the market for medical ­applications.

“The idea was to look into mechanisms that require low-power circuits to be energised without having to use an energy source,” says Al Basha, who gained his doctorate from the University of Leeds in 1995.

“This requires a convergence of three streams of science: the development of state-of-the-art energy harvesting circuitry, developing low-power wireless sensor networks, and integrated design application. And all these three have come together in the past three years for us.”

The developments have helped the researchers to overcome a big hurdle: ­boosting the efficiency of energy-harvesting circuits.

“So we work to harvest energy from air,” says Dr Al Basha. “By that, I mean ­electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones, Wi-Fi networks – wherever there is a wireless network, there is waste of energy.”

That has helped them to develop a novel model that minimises the energy ­needed by harvester circuits. “The efficiency of these circuits has escalated from as low as 10 per cent to as high as 80 to 90 per cent. Everything we harvest can be transformed to the circuits we want to power.”

The application, he says, is wide-ranging: from creating battery-free ­subcutaneous wireless sensors to monitor vital signs and chronic diseases, to sensors that can connect broken nerve tracks to treat disorders such as paralysis.

Before Al Basha moved to academia, in 2007, he worked at Sony, where he developed the first complex mobile-phone antenna switches, used by Sony Ericsson. He moved on to Filtronic Semiconductors, where he took charge of design enablement, developing the first line of industry-standard switches used in handsets.

When he joined AUS, he expanded the microelectronics programme at the ­university and built the first Radio Frequency Integrated Circuit in the UAE.

Al Basha believes there is a growing interest in microelectronics in the UAE.

“The country has been consistently investing in creating an ecosystem with a pool of skilful and qualified engineers and technology managers,” he says.

Dr Pance Naumov

Three years from now, New York University Abu Dhabi’s Naumov Group could be the reason the oil industry in the UAE is saving millions of dollars in cleaning ­operations at their wells and pipelines.

Dr Pance Naumov, an associate professor of chemistry at New York University Abu Dhabi, is leading a special project, commissioned by the state-owned oil company Adnoc, to identify solutions for oil wells in the country.

He moved to the capital in 2012 to join the university, set up his materials-science laboratory and carry out research that will benefit the oil industry.

An expert in physical chemistry, the 40-year-old has a doctorate in chemistry and materials science from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, where he was admitted on a scholarship. He established a laboratory at the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan and went on to teach at Osaka University, where he set up a solid-state chemistry lab.

“Being in the Middle East opens a lot of opportunities in terms of research funding,” says Naumov.

“At NYUAD, the concept of a global-network university and strong administrative staff allows me to grow professionally, as well.”

After facing some challenges while setting up his dedicated lab, including getting a hold of equipment and chemicals that hadn’t been used in the country before, it is now up and running and carrying out research.

Now he heads a team looking for ways to reduce financial losses in the oil ­industry.

“The research focuses on solving a problem related to the deposition of components from the oil in the wellbore and pipelines,” he says. “These compounds cause clogging of the pipes, which is a huge problem in the industry. It is related to a clean-up operation, which is labour- and cost-intensive.

“The clean-up operation has to be undertaken about four times a year and the entire production needs to be stopped for several days. Materials from which the pipes are made need to be replaced or specific chemicals have to be added. This complicates the process.”

There is no universal solution to the problem, because oil differs from well to well and field to field, so “we are trying to find specific solutions for the wells in the UAE”, he adds.

For this, he says, first they have to create links with the industry, set up a dedicated lab and hire staff.

“Materials science is a relatively new interdisciplinary field that requires chemistry, physics, mathematics and engineering,” says Naumov.

“We would like to help the industry with our fundamental knowledge of chemistry and find scientific long-term sustainable solutions to issues they face in their production line.”

Lihadh Al Gazali

Al Gazali Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes skeletal abnormalities and clouding of the cornea, was identified among the descendants of a UAE Bedouin family in 1994.

It is named after Dr Lihadh Al Gazali, from Iraq, a trailblazer in her field of clinical genetics who moved to Al Ain in the 1990s to research genetic disorders unique to Arab populations.

In her 25 years as a researcher and professor in the department of paediatrics at the United Arab Emirates University, she has helped to create a better understanding of hereditary conditions in the country.

“When I moved to the UAE, the challenge was that people were not educated about genetics,” says Al Gazali, who is also an executive board member of the Centre for Arab Genomic Studies (Cags).

“Doctors were not up to date, there were no labs and the authority did not recognise the importance of genetics and why they should invest in research.”

Things have changed, with a heightened interest in genetics and more Emirati families willing to be screened. But in the early days, Al Gazali took on the responsibility of educating people and forging ties with research institutions worldwide to identify common diseases, trace them to genes and help to set up a registry.

Her interest in this field of science piqued while working with Bob Mueller’s clinical genetics department at Leeds University in the United Kingdom in 1986 to identify genetic predispositions among Pakistani families in the city of Bradford. After training in paediatrics and genetics at the university, she had hoped to use that knowledge to help families in Baghdad, where she had noticed several genetic problems among children. However, the unstable situation in Iraq forced her to move to the UAE to pursue her research.

“Because of the tribal situation in the Arab world, you see disorders that are common in certain tribes but not in the general population,” she says. “By just knowing the name of the tribe, we can tell which disorders the child will have. They are extremely rare in the West.”

One such disorder is Stuve-Wiedemann Syndrome, which has been diagnosed in 50 people in Al Ain.

“Children are born with short and bowed limbs, have temperature instability and cannot swallow properly,” Al Gazali explains. “Doctors here are experts at diagnosing it now.”

She says identifying the genes that are responsible opens up options for couples.

“You can advise the family more accurately and tell them what is going to happen to their children in the future, whether they will deteriorate and what steps can be taken to prevent complications,” she says.

Doctors can suggest prenatal diagnosis and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis for couples carrying the affected genes. With the latter, the genetic defects within embryos can be identified through in-vitro fertilisation to prevent it being passed on to the child.

For Al Gazali, the search for a genetic information never ends.

“We are always working to identify links,” she says. “Now we are working with families to find answers to intellectual disabilities and mental retardation.”

Dr Youssef Idaghdour

One of the most pressing health issues facing the Emirati population is the focus of research being carried out by Dr Youssef Idaghdour. The assistant professor of biology heads New York University Abu Dhabi’s Idaghdour Lab on Environmental Genomics, which studies interactions between the genome and environment.

“The reason I moved to the UAE is to look into the study of genetic predisposition to cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the Emirati population,” says Idaghdour, who is from Morocco.

“Most studies in the past have focused on either genes or the environment to determine cases of disease. The approach we are using in the lab looks at both effects at the same time and how they interact with one another.”

Idaghdour, 40, trained in molecular genetics at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom,and gained a doctorate in genetics from North Carolina State University in the United States.

He has a vastly experienced background in analysing how genes express themselves in certain environments. In 2000, he spent time with the Berber population of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and the urban population to look at the effect of the environment on genes and how patterns can define the risk of developing certain diseases. He was also part of the genomics programme at the Sainte-Justine Research Centre in Montreal, before joining NYUAD two years ago.

“My research lies at the intersection of quantitative genetics and medical genomics,” he says.

“At the lab, we use statistical analysis of the data and methods such as the whole genome sequencing, as well as looking at it at the ­single-cell level. This sort of high-resolution genetic mapping is important in the context of identifying infection or cancer. Each cell carries its own mutations or its own gene-expression profile.”

A key aspect of the ongoing project at the lab is genome sequencing of the Emirati population to assist future projects.

“There is a gap in the database of genetic variation, so the first step is to sequence, as each population has its own genetic make-up,” he says.

The next step will be to address the problem of cardiovascular disease, which is a particular local problem.

“Diseases of the circulatory system in general have reached high proportions in Abu Dhabi,” he says.

“They account for 40 per cent of all death cases registered in the past few years and are the number one cause of admission to hospitals. The onset of these ­diseases takes place gradually, so there is a genetic predisposition, but also the lifestyle component.”

He says the long-term goal of his research is to find a way to use genetic information to predict and prevent diseases. “We don’t want to focus on just treating disease, but the ultimate goal is to be able to predict risks. For this, genetic information is not enough – we need to know how these genes express themselves in certain environments.”

Idaghdour hopes to set up more collaborations with other institutions for his research and involve Emirati students in the project.

“Genetic research is exciting because it is not just about disease, but understanding the history of the Emirati population, which is influenced by past migrations from Africa and Asia.”