KARACHI: Researchers at the Aga Khan University (AKU) have started working in collaboration with their counterparts at the University of Virginia (UVA) on an innovative project that will harness the power of artificial intelligence to understand a complex intestinal disorder, environmental enteric dysfunction (EED).
The project, funded through the UVA’s Engineering in Medicine grant, will be carried out with the help of the Data Science Institute at the said American university.
EED, also known as the neglected disease of poverty, is common among children in low-income countries, such as Pakistan, where the population lacks potable water and is exposed to poor sanitation. It hinders the gut’s ability to absorb essential nutrients, compromising children’s growth potential and leaving them vulnerable to a range of diseases.
Data scientists have already demonstrated how “intelligent” computers can outperform experienced radiologists and pathologists in detecting signs of disease in x-rays and biopsies.
Dr. Sana Syed, an assistant professor in pediatrics at the University of Virginia, and Dr. Asad Ali, associate dean for research at the Aga Khan University, are now applying “deep learning,” a type of artificial intelligence, to train a computer program to analyze microscopic images of tissue located deep inside the small intestine, the AKU announced here on Tuesday.
The project will see computers break down the size, shape and structure of images of the intestine’s cells into a matrix of numbers. Every number corresponds to a pixel – the smallest unit of an image – and as the program scans more of these images, it becomes alert to abnormal patterns. Eventually, the computer will learn to compare images of healthy intestines to those affected with EED and to pinpoint the differences at the cellular level that trigger the disorder.
“Applying cutting-edge data science methods on these images will help us decipher this complex, high-dimensional biomedical data, and yield insights that will improve the way we diagnose the disease,” said Dr. Sana Syed.
The images of intestines affected by EED being studied comes as the outcome of a $13-million multi-country grant project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The project is co-led by Dr. Asad Ali of the AKU and Dr. Sean R. Moore at the University of Virginia. Dr. Syed will also be analyzing images held in the UVA’s pathology archives as well as those provided by collaborators from the University of Zambia’s School of Medicine.
“Advances in computing technology offer a neutral, systematic way to process huge amounts of data and this enables us to pursue a multiomics approach where we analyze information on proteins, chemical compounds and even microorganisms to study all the biological changes caused by EED,” said Dr. Asad Ali.
Researchers aim to use the insights from their work to create a comprehensive set of screening biomarkers, chemical warning signs that would help future clinicians to diagnose EED through a simple blood or urine test.
“EED is one of the drivers of chronic public health problems in the developing world such as malnutrition, stunting, and poor response to vaccines,” said Dr. Ali.
According to the researchers, addressing EED will help break the vicious cycle of poverty triggering poor health, and poor health leading to poverty.