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Computer whiz uses investment savvy to battle life-threatening blood disease

Monday, August 24, 2009 02:47:30 AM, Tom Spears

Dr. Saif Ahmad

[Dr. Saif Ahmad has found a new and faster way to detect sepsis - a blood infection - in people who have had bone marrow transplants. The Ottawa Citizen published following article in its August 19 issue.


Dr. Saif Ahmad is the son of former professor of AMU, Mrs. Shaad Bano and Prof. Sohail Ahmed, Professor of Microbiology at J. N. Medical College. He passed his BSc Engg. (electrical) in 1996 from AMU after completing his +2 in 91/92. Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) fraternity is congratulating Dr. Saif for his great achievement.]


Ottawa: Saif Ahmad earned his PhD in computer science by analysing patterns in financial markets, looking for signals that would help big investors make millions.


Then his career took a sudden turn. He still analyses signals coming from huge amounts of data, but now they come from another unpredictable source — the human body.


If you ever need a bone marrow transplant, you may have cause to be grateful he didn’t stick with the markets.


Ahmad and thoracic surgeon Dr. Andrew Seely of The Ottawa Hospital have found that ordinary heart monitors can reveal the onset of sepsis, a blood infection that can be lethal.


Though their work is still preliminary, the method can often detect the onset of sepsis earlier than the usual method of checking a patient’s temperature.


Their study is published online this week in a journal of the Public Library of Science, called PLoS One.


A healthy heart doesn’t beat at a steady rate, Ahmad explains. You have one heartbeat, then another a second later, the next one 8⁄10 of a second after that, then maybe 6⁄10, and so on. A musician would call it a syncopated beat.


That may sound unstable, but it’s not unhealthy.


“Variability is good,” Ahmad notes.


But when sepsis sets in, these long and short intervals begin to even out into a heartbeat that ticks like a clock, steady and regular.


On average, their study of 17 patients found this signals the start of sepsis 35 hours — almost a day and a half — earlier than traditional methods, though it varied from patient to patient.


Sepsis “is life-threatening. The earlier you detect it and get aggressive antibiotic therapy, that’s the only way to deal with it at the moment,” Ahmad said.


(The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says sepsis is the 10th most common cause of death in the U.S., and the second-highest cause of death in intensive care units.)


It was Seely who picked sepsis as a research topic. It’s a constant threat among surgical patients, and the two men decided to focus on patients receiving bone-marrow transplants as cancer therapy.


“That puts their whole physiological system at a compromise,” Ahmad says. “The white blood cell count goes pretty low,” which reduces their ability to fight infection.


The patients are sent home and told to watch their temperatures. If they start to rise, that’s taken as a sign of possible sepsis.


But in this study, they were also given Holter monitors — a heart monitor for outpatients that clips on a belt, with wires taped to the patient’s torso. It records 24 or 48 hours of heart activity at a time.


Ahmad went to work on these records, monitoring each patient for an average of 12 days, “looking for patterns using sophisticated techniques from complex systems science and statistical physics and computer science.


“The challenge is that this data doesn’t follow any well-known principles,” he said. “It has certain patterns which are irregular, so the technique has to be robust to pick up the subtle changes from the data.”


His analysis worked. He found that before other signs of sepsis appeared, the heart rates stopped jumping around “and became very monotonous and featureless.”


“We can get the data, analyse it, and show meaningful drops” in the heartbeat variations, he said. “It’s a promising technique. We have shown that it works and we’re hoping to bring it into practice someday.”


A bonus is that all this works with ordinary heart monitors that hospitals have used for years.


Seely says studies show the risk of death from sepsis increases by about seven per cent for each hour that the start of treatment is delayed. And he said current methods of detecting sepsis are “incredibly crude,” since they don’t work until the temperature of the patient’s entire body is rising.


While the new method isn’t meant to be the only tool for diagnosing sepsis, “we feel it may raise the alarm earlier,” he said.


Seely has founded a spinoff company, Therapeutic Monitoring Systems, to commercialize the process.


Ahmad now studies blood pressure monitoring at the University of Ottawa’s School of Information Technology and Engineering.


© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

(Courtesy: The Ottawa Citizen)







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