KAUST IMPACT Spring 2020
Restoring the Worldâ€™s Oceans Pages 9-10
G20 and S20 Leadership Pages 5-6
COVID-19 Response Pages 19-34
From the President Dr. Tony F. Chan, President of KAUST
Welcome to the first edition of KAUST Impact, celebrating some
In keeping with this theme, we seek to build impact stories
of the latest fruits that have translated from KAUST research
around quotations from an external stakeholder or a researcher
and education to society, government and industry, and com-
or educator on the front lines. We invite your eyes to land first
municating them to influencers in Saudi Arabia and the world.
on these prominently displayed quotations and then go to the stories and sidebars that document their origins.
Since I assumed the KAUST Presidency in July 2018, the most frequent question I have been asked by stakeholders is, â€œAfter a
No sooner had we begun working on our first issue than the
decade, where has KAUST made an impact?â€? I cannot speak for the
COVID-19 pandemic convulsed the globe. I issued a call to action
entire decade, but I am overwhelmed with pride and joy at where
and many responded. KAUST is in the fortunate position of being
KAUST has made an impact during my term so far. Moreover, we
able to refocus its research capabilities on urgent new targets.
believe that we are just at the beginning of our opportunities
KAUST Impact took on a new meaning as Saudi health authorities
to deliver on the expectations of the ambitious nation of Saudi
realized that they had an in-Kingdom partner of deep expertise
Arabia. Therefore, it is time to regularly publish stories that help
in understanding and mitigating the effects of the pandemic.
answer this question, and allow readers to meet the talented faculty, staff and students that are making an impact.
One purpose of assembling world-class researchers and facilities is that they can pivot from one application to another using the
KAUST Impact is planned for two issues per year, at the end of
same skills, whether in biomolecular modeling or artificial intel-
each academic semester. It will focus on how KAUST research,
ligence, and use the same equipment, whether DNA sequencers
education and innovation improves the lives of global citizens,
or high-performance computers. We therefore dedicate a special
with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a key stakeholder in terms
section of this first edition of KAUST Impact to our rapid research
of enhancing national reputation, training the workforce, creating
response teams (R3T) and their pivot to pandemic research. Other
jobs and boosting the economy, as well as serving the government,
stories show how our workforce pipeline programs adapted to
industry, academia or the populace as a source of expertise.
our new online world. I hope you enjoy every page as much as I do. President Tony Chan
CONTENTS 03 KAUST in the News 04 Major Partnerships: Virgin Hyperloop One and NEOM
05 G20 Engagement 06 S20 Leadership 07 KAUST Virtual Young Talent Academy 08 KAUST Gifted Student Program
15 Commercializing Saltwater-based Agricultural Solutions 16 Building the Kingdom’s Biotechnology Industrial Ecosystem 17 Pioneering Saudi Arabia’s First Self-Driving Vehicles 18 Paving the Way for Wearable Sensor Technology
09 Restoring the World’s Oceans 11 Using Cutting-Edge Technology to Tackle Engineering Challenges 12 Enhancing Red Sea Ecology for Saudi Arabia’s Flagship International Tourism Destination 13 Boosting Global Date Fruit Production
19 Introduction 21 Supporting Accurate Diagnostics 23 Tracking Virus Changes 25 Monitoring COVID-19 in Wastewater 27 Identifying & Repurposing Existing Treatments 29 Predicting Outbreaks & Informing Policy Decisions 31 Navigating the Crisis 33 Supporting Hospitals & Health Workers 35 KAUST in Brief 37 Credits
in the news
KAUST research featured in the following news outlets worldwide in the first half of 2020
MAJOR PARTNERSHIPS 4
Virgin Hyperloop One
Accelerating Saudi Arabia’s technology and transport development In November 2019 KAUST and Virgin Hyperloop One (VHO) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) aimed at accelerating Saudi Arabia’s technology and transport development. Headquartered in California, VHO is the world’s leading hyperloop company. Using vacuum tubes, magnets and transportation pods, the technology makes use of ultra-low aerodynamic drag within the tubes to achieve rapid speeds. Hyperloop stands as a potential game-changer that could transform the way passengers and goods move; it aims to deliver airline speeds of up to 1100 km per hour at a fraction of the cost of air travel. Hyperloop is fully autonomous and 100% electric, with zero direct emissions. The KAUST-VHO MoU will facilitate knowledge exchange between the two partners. It follows a recent proposal to create a VHO manufacturing and test track facility at King Abdullah Economic City, which could propel the Kingdom to the forefront of hyperloop development worldwide.
February 2020 saw the announcement of a hyperloop feasibility study by the Ministry of Transport. If implemented, the technology could reduce travel time between Riyadh and Jeddah from 10-12 hours by bus to just 45 minutes. The journey from Jeddah to NEOM would be reduced to 40 minutes, while the trip from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi would be just 48 minutes. VHO plans to be operational by the mid-2020s.
VIRGIN HYPERLOOP ONE “Having the opportunity to partner with one of the country’s most prestigious research universities such as KAUST is a significant collaboration for us.” Sultan bin Sulayem, Chairman of VHO
NEOM Expanding KAUST’s support for the flagship initiative of Vision 2030 KAUST is embarking on new areas of partnership with NEOM, the $500 billion flagship mega-city development of Vision 2030. Last year, KAUST Professor of Plant Science Mark Tester was called to NEOM to serve as head of the future of food sector, and over the coming year, KAUST Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Mani Sarathy will be helping to implement a new KAUST-NEOM partnership focused on clean fuels.
NEOM “KAUST is an instrumental provider of worldleading expertise and applied science for environmental planning, assessment and monitoring at NEOM. We rely on KAUST for its expertise in a variety of fields, including water, wastewater and energy, and smart grids.” Simon Ainslie, Chief Operating Officer at NEOM
This follows a long list of KAUST personnel supporting NEOM’s development. Professor of Electrical Engineering Jeff Shamma has helped advance the concept of smart cities at NEOM, while Research Strategic Engagement Lead Manus Ward has devoted his attention to introducing and connecting NEOM leaders to KAUST faculty. During NEOM’s start-up, Policy and Planning Manager Mahmoud Muati assisted human resources development. A number of KAUST graduates and former KAUST leaders have been recruited by NEOM. The list includes former Interim President Nadhmi Al Nasr, now NEOM’s CEO; former President Jean-Lou Chameau; and former Vice Presidents Antonio Valenzuela and Patricia Hughes. KAUST has supported NEOM since the early stages of its development by providing unique regional data on wind power, solar indices, seismic assessments and analysis of the Red Sea floor, which has helped NEOM design its master plan. Recently, the two partners signed an agreement to facilitate use of KAUST’s research vessel, Thuwal, for sea-based tours of NEOM’s marine sites. The 34.7-meter-long vessel is a key asset to the marine research community at KAUST and enables scientists to collect data all over the Red Sea.
5 SERVING SOCIETY
Strengthened Impact, New Frontiers: Evolving our Role and Reach Through G20 Engagement Several months after I took on the role of KAUST President, it was announced that Saudi Arabia would hold the G20 presidency for the first time. I knew I would have many unprecedented opportunities and responsibilities that come with the honor of leading this one-of-a-kind institution into a new era. But the chance for KAUST to quickly contribute to the global conversation in heightened ways, when all eyes would be on Saudi Arabia, was something that even I had not expected. After a discussion with Senior Associate to the President and Vice President for Strategic National Advancement Najah Ashry, we proceeded with a proposal coordinated by Chief of Staff John Tannaci to host the S20, the G20 Science Engagement Group, and to work with Saudi ministries to share KAUST’s knowledge and expertise. The excitement grew when KAUST was appointed by the Kingdom to lead the S20. At KAUST we believe that innovation through science and technology promises to solve humanity’s greatest challenges. We believe that as the presiding country for this year’s G20 Leaders’ Summit, it is fitting that Saudi Arabia establish itself as a champion for the next decade of global development. The Kingdom is uniquely positioned, in both mindset and ability, to help usher in a new era of progress through
DONAL BRADLEY Vice President for Research
Supporting global socio-economic development KAUST is among the Kingdom’s key institutions currently supporting Saudi Arabia’s 2020 presidency of the G20, or Group of 20. Saudi Arabia took over the presidency in December 2019 and is due to host the G20 Leaders’ Summit in November 2020. It will mark the first time the summit is held in the Middle East. The G20 is one of the most important forums for international economic cooperation. It gathers the leaders of the world’s largest economies to discuss financial and socio-economic issues. G20 members represent approximately 80% of the world’s GDP, 80% of international trade and two-thirds of the world’s population. While the G20 is a non-binding, coordinating body, it has the potential to have a significant impact on global social, economic and environmental development. The presidency plays a leading role in setting the G20’s agenda for the year. Under the overarching theme of “Realizing
Opportunities of the 21st Century for All”, Saudi Arabia has identified women and youth empowerment, energy and climate change, and food and water security as key topics. Numerous ministerial and engagement group meetings are taking place in Saudi Arabia throughout 2020 in the build-up to the Leaders’ Summit. KAUST’s G20 efforts are being led by Vice President for Research Donal Bradley, who is coordinating the university’s six technical responses to G20 teams. Key KAUST faculty members working with G20 teams include Carlos Duarte, Professor of Marine Science; Mohamed Eddaoudi, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Science; Jorge Gascon, Professor of Chemical Engineering; Matthew McCabe, Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering; William Roberts, Professor of Mechanical Engineering; and Mani Sarathy, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
SERVING SOCIETY 6
science, technology and innovation – the new fuel of the 21st century.
stewardship and sustainability. Our role as the S20 Secretariat means we work with top scientific institutions from all G20 countries and throughout
The Kingdom is an example of our hypothesis in action. Since the country
the Kingdom to develop guidance and recommendations that will shape the
committed to a unified vision of progress, it has made impressive achieve-
global approach to challenges and opportunities in health, the environment,
ments in the areas that matter most. Spurring economic growth and
artificial intelligence and other emerging fields in the next decade.
investment through business reforms, empowering women in society and the workplace, changing education models, increasing and diversifying
We believe that through our role in supporting the Kingdom’s G20 presiden-
research and development, and opening the door to the digital revolution –
cy – an undertaking we owe to the momentum and visibility of our achieve-
the country is at the beginning of an inspiring journey.
ments and impact in KAUST’s first decade – we can continue to contribute to national priorities while adapting solutions to benefit the world on a
Saudi Arabia’s G20 presidency represents an evolution of the Kingdom’s
never-before-seen global scale.
role in the world. KAUST’s efforts to support this leadership represents an expansion of our work in the country.
KAUST would like to thank everyone in the Kingdom and around the world who has been a partner in our journey. This is just the beginning. I look for-
Over the last year we have served as a scientific and subject matter advisor
ward to continuing to share outcomes and new successes in future editions.
to the G20 Secretariat, advocating for attention and action in fields contributing to the new circular carbon economy, the digital economy, climate
Dr. Tony F. Chan, President of KAUST
G20 SAUDI SECRETARIAT “The G20 Saudi Secretariat would like to congratulate KAUST on gaining Royal confidence, and affirm its continued support and cooperation for the success of the Kingdom’s G20 presidency.” Dr. Fahd bin Abdullah Tunisi, Advisor at the Royal Court and Secretary General of the G20 Saudi Secretariat (in awarding the S20 Engagement Group leadership to KAUST)
S20 LEADERSHIP Leading the world’s scientific community
In September 2020 KAUST will host the summit for the Science 20 (S20), one of the official G20 engagement groups. The S20 fosters dialogue among the G20’s scientific communities, with the aim of proposing science-driven solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. The culmination of this work involves the development of policy recommendations that are formally submitted to G20 leaders for consideration. This year the S20 is being led by KAUST under the chairmanship of Dr. Anas Alfaris of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. KAUST’s S20 efforts are led by Dr. Najah Ashry, Senior Associate to the President and Vice President for Strategic National Advancement, and Dr. Teofilo (Jun) Abrajano, Director of the Office of Sponsored Research.
NAJAH ASHRY Senior Associate to the President and Vice President for Strategic National Advancement
The theme of this year’s S20 is “Foresight: Science for Navigating Critical Transitions”, which aims to emphasize how science can be used as a tool to guide humanity through critical times. Major sub-themes that have been organized into task forces include the future of health, the circular economy and the digital revolution. Twenty-five KAUST faculty members are contributors to these groups, with Professor Tareq Al Naffouri leading the digital revolution task force. KAUST is well positioned to bring its expertise to the forum, given the alignment of the S20 sub-themes with KAUST strategic initiatives.
7 SERVING SOCIETY
Navigating Major Transitions to New Realities: Promoting Stability and Growth for KAUST’s Young Saudi Students amid the COVID-19 Crisis Each year, KAUST welcomes hundreds of Saudi undergraduates, middle and high school students to campus for activities including real-world research, intensive training and specialized internships. These students will be future KAUST graduates and Saudi Arabia’s next generation of scientists, innovators and thought leaders. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, KAUST was ahead of the curve in developing targeted strategies to support its gifted young Saudis in the Kingdom and abroad, ensuring uninterrupted academic journeys. KAUST’s Strategic National Advancement office quickly responded to mitigate disruptions, gaps and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, with holistic efforts and interventions ranging from educational and operational, to health and well-being.
MAWHIBA “Because of KAUST’s intervention, Saudi Arabia now has a one-of-a-kind digital STEM academy and a vibrant learning community for our nation’s top high schoolers.” HH Prince Dr. Bandar bin Abdullah Al Saud, Senior Mawhiba Board Member
KAUST Virtual Young Talent Academy KAUST-Impact-190620.indd 8
Developing national talent in the age of COVID-19 To overcome the learning and development challenges brought on by COVID-19, KAUST launched an online academy to support Saudi Arabia’s most gifted high school students, whose summer academic plans – which often define their future college admissions success – were disrupted. A first of its kind in the Kingdom, the KAUST Virtual Young Talent Academy (VTA) kicked off at the beginning of June with an intensive summer pilot program for students displaced from the university’s annual residential Saudi Research Science Institute. The VTA offers students a robust mix of academic courses, training and research, combined with KAUST’s own brand of enrichment and development activities. The goal is for students to come out of the summer stronger and more prepared than ever with the skills, networks, confidence, edge and drive to succeed in a rapidly changing 21st century. The VTA offers students a new way to engage and grow. It enables a rich virtual network for young scholars, marked by peer empowerment and KAUST mentor support. KAUST faculty and staff are dedicated to preparing students for their futures as global undergraduates, KAUST graduates and professionals contributing to Saudi Arabia’s vibrant national transformation.
SERVING SOCIETY 8
KAUST Gifted Student Program Managing a global scholarship during the pandemic KAUST’s community extends well beyond its campus walls. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the university has navigated the challenges and facilitated the smooth continuation of its flagship US-based undergraduate scholarship, the KAUST Gifted Student Program (KGSP). Working with nearly 50 partner universities, KAUST has ensured that the KGSP’s 500-strong student body has continued to thrive and receive the support they need across the US amid rapid shifts in education models and international disruptions to logistics, travel and communication. In a time of unparalleled uncertainty and risk, KAUST has continued to provide its KGSP undergraduate students with individualized attention and support. This has included new strategies in transitioning to online learning; housing solutions when many campuses have shut down; and well-being and mental health support during this stressful time away from family and friends. In today’s new reality, the KGSP is continuing in its core mission to prepare Saudi Arabia’s top youth to recognize, leverage and shape the unprecedented opportunities of the 21st century. Whether they choose future academic, scientific, professional or entrepreneurial pursuits, the KGSP ensures students have the global mindsets, holistic skills and credentials to tackle the nation’s and humanity’s greatest challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic serves as a stark example of the strategic, innovative and critical thinking skills required to navigate change – a fact that has been embraced by KGSP students as they consider their roles in the Kingdom’s future.
MINISTER OF HEALTH “KAUST has pioneered in providing the best evidence-based solutions for our communities and our youth. As such, it came as no surprise that they were ahead of the curve when the outbreak emerged. KGSP students will come out of this empowered and richer for the experience.” HE Dr. Tawfiq bin Fawzan Al Rabiah
9 KAUST RESEARCH
RESTORING THE WORLD’S OCEANS KAUST researchers lead an evidence-based global study detailing how marine life can recover to full abundance by 2050
In April 2020 the scientific journal Nature published an international oceans study led by KAUST Professors of Marine Science Carlos Duarte and Susana Agustí. The study documents how the recovery rate of marine life can be accelerated to achieve substantial recovery within two to three decades. The study received broad international news coverage, featuring in the BBC, The Guardian and Newsweek, among others.
CARLOS DUARTE Professor of Marine Science and Tarek Ahmed Juffali Research Chair in Red Sea Ecology
WE HAVE A NARROW WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY TO DELIVER A HEALTHY OCEAN TO OUR GRANDCHILDREN’S GENERATION, AND WE HAVE THE KNOWLEDGE AND TOOLS TO DO SO.
The study lays out a roadmap of specific actions to enable the full recovery of the planet’s marine life by 2050. According to the World Wildlife Fund, marine life populations have declined by nearly 50% in the last four decades. This has put the ocean’s ability to support human life under severe threat. The project has brought together work of some of the world’s leading marine scientists from 16 international universities, including KAUST, MIT, Sorbonne Université, The University of Queensland, Aarhus University and the University of York. Their work focused on how the recovery rate of marine life could be increased. Research indicates that if efficient interventions are deployed at large scale, it is still possible for the world’s oceans to recover an abundance of marine life. The study identifies nine components of marine ecosystems that are integral to rebuilding marine life: coral reefs, seagrass, mangroves, megafauna, deep sea, oyster reefs, fisheries, saltmarshes and kelp. The researchers also
FORBES “Scientists believe that the world’s oceans could be recovered to healthy levels by 2050, but it would require a substantial shift in the way that we approach business and conservation.” Forbes article on Earth Day
KAUST RESEARCH 10
identified six specific recovery actions that are needed: mitigating climate change, protecting species, safeguarding spaces, reducing pollution, harvesting wisely and restoring habitats. “Our study documents the recovery of marine populations, habitats and ecosystems following past conservation interventions. It provides specific, evidence-based recommendations to scale proven solutions globally,” Duarte, who is also the Tarek Ahmed Juffali Research Chair in Red Sea Ecology, said. “We are at a point where we can choose between a legacy of a resilient and vibrant ocean or an irreversibly disrupted ocean.” In June 2020 Professor Duarte participated in the Capitol Hill Ocean Week virtual conference, the US’ premier annual conference examining current marine, coastal and Great Lakes policy issues. During his panel session, Professor Duarte emphasized the necessity of global cooperation for the restoration of the world’s oceans. Sharks and large marine predators, for example, have experienced significant decline, but evidence shows that their numbers can be increased with appropriate protection measures. When it comes to coral, the integrity of reef fish communities adds resilience to coral reefs and facilitates their recovery once pressures are removed. Among evidence for the resilience of marine life are remarkable cases of recovery, including that of the humpback whale population. Rebuilding marine life would bring far-reaching ecological, economic and social gains. The study’s authors see this as both a smart eco-
SUSANA AGUSTÍ Professor of Marine Science
REBUILDING MARINE LIFE REPRESENTS AN ADDRESSABLE GRAND CHALLENGE FOR HUMANITY, AN ETHICAL OBLIGATION AND A SMART ECONOMIC OBJECTIVE TO ACHIEVE A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE. nomic objective and an ethical obligation. Enabling a more sustainable, ocean-based economy will require a committed global partnership inclusive of governments, private companies and societies worldwide. Mitigating climate change through the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions stands as one of the most important elements for success. Rebuilding the abundance of marine life can only succeed if the most ambitious goals within the Paris Agreement – such as limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5°C – are reached.
11 KAUST RESEARCH
USING CUTTING-EDGE TECHNOLOGY TO TACKLE ENGINEERING CHALLENGES KAUST professors support the Governor of the Kingdom’s Asir Region GOVERNOR OF ASIR REGION “KAUST’s distinguished team has set an example for success through their dedication, commitment and immediate response.” MATTHEW MCCABE Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering, and Associate Director of the Water Desalination and Reuse Center
APART FROM UNDERTAKING CUTTINGEDGE RESEARCH, KAUST FACULTY ALSO USE THEIR SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING BACKGROUNDS TO ADDRESS REAL-WORLD PROBLEMS – BRINGING NEW INSIGHTS AND TECHNIQUES TO BEAR ON PROBLEMS OF LOCAL AND NATIONAL SIGNIFICANCE.
HRH Prince Turki Al Talal Al Saud
In February 2020 KAUST Professor of Earth Science and Engineering Carlos Santamarina received a call to support the Governor of Asir following critical damage to an important mountain road construction project. New works that had caused inadvertent damage along a major arterial transport link for the region threatened a risk of road collapse. The Governor, HRH Prince Turki Al Talal Al Saud, reached out directly to KAUST for technical help. Referred by Professor Santamarina, Matthew McCabe – Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering, and whose background is in earth observation and remote sensing – mobilised a team to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other scientific tools to map the affected area. McCabe’s research at KAUST has focused on the use of remote sensing to support efficient water use in Saudi Arabia. Using satellite technology and weather data, his team has been able to accurately estimate crop water levels in irrigated fields of maize in the country. McCabe has pioneered remote sensing to provide practical solutions in the Kingdom. The threat to the Asir construction site required site observation to be conducted very quickly. However, the site’s topographical complexity and steep terrain – including 700-meter-tall cliffs – meant traditional monitoring solutions were not suitable, as direct site navigation would be particularly difficult. This paved the way for a remote sensing solution. After initially advising and putting together a work plan, McCabe sent a team of KAUST researchers to survey the site using UAVs. The team created a high-resolution map of the terrain to look for signs of instability. Using GPS, KAUST also created 3D models of the site. To date there have been no landslides at the site. The Governor has been extremely happy with the university’s support, praising KAUST and the university’s technical expertise. Over the coming months, KAUST plans to conduct more UAV flights to ensure that the structural stability of the terrain is maintained. A long-term solution must include monitoring for early detection of warning signs.
KAUST RESEARCH 12
ENHANCING RED SEA ECOLOGY FOR SAUDI ARABIA’S FLAGSHIP INTERNATIONAL TOURISM DESTINATION
RUSTY BRAINARD Chief Environmental Officer at The Red Sea Development Company and Courtesy Professor of Marine Science
KAUST has been expanding its partnership and research engagement with Saudi Arabia’s flagship international tourism destination, The Red Sea Development Company. In April 2020 KAUST appointed Dr. Rusty Brainard, Chief Environmental Officer at The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC), as a courtesy professor of marine science. Dr Brainard is leading the implementation of a range of groundbreaking environmental sustainability initiatives at the Red Sea project site. These include reliance on 100% renewable energy, complete carbon neutrality on a destination-wide scale, zero brine discharge from desalination operations and enhancement of the site’s biodiversity by 30% over the next two decades. In his new role, Dr. Brainard will support the KAUST Red Sea Research Center in the university’s Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering division, while continuing his work at TRSDC. This follows the signing of a memorandum of understanding between KAUST and TRSDC in September 2019, aimed at enhancing
KAUST deepens research efforts with The Red Sea Development Company marine ecology and biodiversity along the Red Sea coast. With world-leading expertise in oceanography and marine conservation, KAUST is well positioned to support the project’s exceptionally high sustainability goals. The two partners recently conducted a Marine Spatial Planning exercise, the results of which informed the development of the project’s master plan. TRSDC and KAUST envision the eventual establishment of a joint TRSDC-KAUST Marine Station for field research.
THE RED SEA DEVELOPMENT COMPANY “The Red Sea Development Company is proud to be working with visionary thinkers who share our commitment to environmental sustainability in order to create new solutions to long-standing challenges.” John Pagano, CEO of The Red Sea Development Company
13 KAUST RESEARCH
BOOSTING GLOBAL DATE FRUIT PRODUCTION KAUST-Impact-190620.indd 14
KHALIFA INTERNATIONAL AWARD “The winners contribute to the development of the date palm sector and agricultural innovation worldwide.” Dr. Abdelouahhab Zaid, Secretary General of the Khalifa International Award for Date Palm and Agricultural Innovation
KAUST RESEARCH 14
IKRAM BLILOU Associate Professor of Plant Science
THE DATE PALM IS ONE OF THE FEW FRUIT TREES THAT, REMARKABLY, CAN GROW IN THE DESERT. AT KAUST, WE HAVE BEGUN TO DEVELOP NEW BREEDING STRATEGIES TO HELP PALMS GROW FASTER AND HEALTHIER, AS WELL AS MAKE THEM MORE RESISTANT TO PATHOGENS AND PESTS.
A step towards understanding the basic mechanisms of date palm growth and adaptation to desert conditions Dates are an important part of many people’s diets around the world, and hold particular importance for Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East. According to the National Palms and Dates Center, the Kingdom produces an estimated 1.1 million tons of dates per year. This is equivalent to 15% of the world’s date production. The date palm is one of the few fruit trees that that can grow in the desert. Its ability to survive in an arid climate characterized by extreme temperatures and drought have historically made it an important source of food in the region. Date palm trees can grow to 23 meters tall, with a lifespan of more than 100 years. Dates are famous for their nutritional value, owing to high quantities of both potassium and magnesium. However, to date, basic understanding and detailed descriptions of the early development of date palm – which is essential to unraveling the species’ adaptation to arid desert conditions – were lacking. Using advanced microscopy, transcriptomics and metabolomics, KAUST scientists unraveled date palm adaptations to desert conditions. This understanding provides important foundational knowledge for the expansion of desert agriculture, which is essential in the face of global climate change. The international award-winning project marks the first comprehensive study of date palm growth and development, and revealed how date palm plants use unusual developmental programs to cope with challenging conditions such as poor soil and
limited water supply. These developmental innovations include remote germination, seedling dormancy, and a hydraulic system to efficiently colonize soil and uptake water. In January 2020, Professor Ikram Bilou was declared one of the winners of the Khalifa International Award for Date Palm and Agricultural Innovation. Out of 141 candidates from 28 countries, Professor Bilou was one of four winners. The achievement adds to a growing chorus of global acknowledgement and recognition of KAUST’s contribution to science and service to society. Out of the award’s four categories, Professor Blilou won the Distinguished Innovative Studies and Modern Technology category for her project. The award includes 1 million UAE dirhams ($272,000). After establishing a date palm research program at KAUST, the next stage for the team – in collaboration with KAUST’s Center for Desert Agriculture (CDA) – is to create breeding strategies for date palm. The CDA aims to create a molecular toolbox for efficient date palm breeding. Within the Fast Fit Palm project, the CDA teams are designing molecular and biotechnological tools to greatly accelerate date palm growth and fitness. One of the CDA’s objectives is to sequence the genome of many varieties of date palm, focusing on Ajwa. Together with Rod Wing, Professor of Plant Science and Director of the CDA, the two teams collected date palm samples from the Al Dabeta farm by the Quba mosque in Madinah: home to some of the oldest date palms in the world.
15 KAUST INNOVATION
COMMERCIALIZING SALTWATER-BASED AGRICULTURAL SOLUTIONS Red Sea Farms begins selling produce in supermarkets and comes third in the Entrepreneurship World Cup RESEARCH PRODUCTS DEVELOPMENT COMPANY KSA “The partnership between Research Products Development Company and Red Sea Farms is a great example of the transition of KAUST academic research to commercial application for the purpose of enabling local production of fresh fruits and vegetables in freshwater-constrained regions. We have a strong track record of bringing technology to market in Saudi Arabia and are proud to support Red Sea Farms as they scale.” Abdulmohsen Almajnouni, CEO of Research Products Development Company KSA KAUST spin-out Red Sea Farms, which developed saltwater greenhouse technology for growing food in the desert, has begun to sell its produce in the Kingdom’s Tamimi and Mother Nature supermarket chains. The company’s “Tamatimi tomatoes” can now be found in both Jeddah and KAUST Tamimi stores, marking a small but significant development for the company. MARK TESTER Co-Founder of Red Sea Farms and Professor of Plant Sciences
GLOBALLY, OUR FOOD
The technology developed by Red Sea Farms enables the growth of saltwater-tolerant crops, such as tomatoes, in greenhouses cooled by saltwater. The method allows for between 80% and 90% of freshwater to be substituted with saltwater, dras-
tically reducing the water and carbon footprint of food production. The company’s technology is poised to revolutionize agriculture and is uniquely positioned to serve the growing food security needs of the Middle East. In November 2019 Red Sea Farms came third in the Misk Global Forum’s Entrepreneurship World Cup, which featured over 100,000 start-up applications from 170 countries. In April 2020 Red Sea Farms announced a collaboration with merchant banking firm Kirchner Group, which is helping the company to develop growth channels and evaluate potential strategic partnerships to expand further.
SYSTEMS ARE PROFOUNDLY UNSUSTAINABLE; WE HAVE TO CHANGE OUR OVERDEPENDENCE ON WATER, AND ONE WAY TO ACHIEVE THIS IS TO SUBSTITUTE SOME OF THE FRESHWATER WE USE WITH SALTWATER.
KAUST INNOVATION 16
BUILDING THE KINGDOM’S BIOTECHNOLOGY INDUSTRIAL ECOSYSTEM A new National BioPark at KAUST will help to diversify the economy and create new job opportunities In April 2020 KAUST virtually signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia’s Industrial Clusters (IC), which is a major government entity designed to catalyze the development of export-oriented and globally competitive industries that leverage the Kingdom’s resources. The groundbreaking agreement will see the development of a National BioPark on the KAUST campus. It will be located in the KAUST Research and Technology Park, which is currently home to 40 companies, including 14 established Saudi firms and global corporates, and 26 deep-tech incubated start-ups. Firms include Saudi Aramco, Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, Dow and Boeing. The National BioPark will be developed by IC as part of Vision 2030’s National Industrial Development and Logistics Program, one of the 13 Vision Realization Programs. The program aims to transform the Kingdom into a leading industrial power and an international logistics platform. The BioPark will be vital for the growth of research and technology development in biopharmaceutical, smart health and associated artificial intelligence technologies. After considering sites across the country for the development of the National BioPark, IC determined KAUST as the best location.
KEVIN CULLEN Vice President for Innovation and Economic Development
WE BELIEVE KAUST CHECKS ALL THE BOXES FOR INTERNATIONAL COMPANIES WHO ARE LOOKING FOR A LAUNCHPAD INTO MIDDLE EASTERN MARKETS: NOT ONLY CAN BUSINESSES BECOME PART OF OUR INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY, THEY CAN ALSO BENEFIT FROM OUR WORLD-CLASS TALENT, RESEARCH, TRAINING AND FACILITIES. The BioPark aligns with KAUST’s Research and Technology Park master plan, and supports the initiatives of the university’s Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering division. The new KAUST Smart Health Initiative, which is led by Dean Pierre Magistretti, is expected to benefit from the BioPark’s development. The initiative aims to drive fundamental understanding of disease mechanisms and precision medicine in Saudi Arabia. KAUST’s partnership with SaudiVax – initiated in 2018 – will also see new heights with the construction of the Saudi Vaccine and Biomanufacturing Center in the BioPark, which is scheduled for completion in 2022. Over the long term, it is anticipated that the BioPark will attract a greater number of companies and start-ups to benefit from KAUST’s R&D ecosystem.
INDUSTRIAL CLUSTERS “There is no place like KAUST to host such an initiative, as KAUST is a national innovation and R&D hub for the biotechnology industry within the Kingdom.” Eng. Nizar Al Hariri, President of Industrial Clusters
17 KAUST INNOVATION
PIONEERING SAUDI ARABIA’S FIRST SELF-DRIVING VEHICLES
KAUST turns to smart technology for trial use on campus EASY MILE “KAUST is (…) ahead of the curve in alternative mobility solutions. We see our collaboration as a groundbreaking milestone in introducing environmentally friendly and accessible public transportation to KAUST and the region.” Gilbert Gagnaire, CEO of EasyMile
JASON ROOS Chief Information Officer
WE ARE A LIVING LABORATORY THAT IS UNLIKE ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD – THAT MEANS WE CAN DEVELOP AND DEMONSTRATE THE DIGITAL INNOVATIONS THAT WILL TRANSFORM WHAT IT MEANS TO LIVE, WORK, AND PLAY IN A CITY.
In January 2020 KAUST initiated a pilot project for self-driving shuttles on its campus, positioning the university as a pioneer in the adoption of autonomous vehicles for Saudi Arabia. The move solidifies KAUST’s position as a leader in eco-friendly transportation and mobility research, and will assist the university in becoming a major smart city in the region. The pilot project incorporates vehicle technology from two global leaders in autonomous mobility and advanced manufacturing: Local Motors by LM Industries and EasyMile. The fully electric shuttles use mapping, cognitive response technology, light detection, and ranging (Lidar) and obstacle avoidance systems to control, navigate and drive the vehicles. In recent years autonomous vehicles have become increasingly popular worldwide, and are anticipated to play a transformative role in the way we travel. Saudi Arabia is considered to have significant potential for both the autonomous vehicle and shuttle market. KAUST Chief Information Officer, Jason Roos, has been integral to introducing the smart cities concept to the KAUST campus, and smart initiatives have been rolled out under a project called KAUST Smart. The university’s autonomous shuttles are operated and managed by Saudi Public Transport Co. (SAPTCO), a strategic partner of KAUST. Part of SAPTCO’s strategy is the development of advanced mobility solutions that contribute to the realization of Vision 2030. Innovation and sustainability are two of KAUST’s highest priorities. Implementing autonomous vehicles on campus is an important next step in creating transportation solutions that help reduce emissions, increase mobility and diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy.
KAUST INNOVATION 18
PAVING THE WAY FOR WEARABLE SENSOR TECHNOLOGY
KAUST PHD GRADUATE “KAUST provides students with all the expertise, facilities and connections they need to build, evolve and innovate beyond their academic backgrounds to lead worldwide change and impact.” Joanna Nassar, Stanford University, 2017 KAUST PhD
KAUST researchers develop first-ever fully flexible silicon technology Researchers at KAUST have developed a pioneering miniature sensor device that can be tagged to fish for marine ecosystem data gathering. The tagging technology sticks to the fish and can measure water temperature, pressure, depth and pH levels in parts of the ocean where humans cannot reach. The system, which weighs just 2.4 grams, can be attached to the shells or skin of marine creatures and is able to continuously transmit ecological data from ocean depths of up to 2 km for an entire year. The technology, known as Bluefin, was developed by KAUST Professor of Electrical Engineering Muhammad Mustafa Hussain and 2017 KAUST PhD graduate Joanna Nassar. Dr. Nassar’s degree was in Electrical Engineering and she is now a post-doc in Biological Sciences at Stanford University. Bluefin will be available for use by scuba divers, naval forces and other stakeholders interested in marine life tagging for ecological data. “The sensors monitor the environment, save data in an integrated memory, and when the tag is brought to the surface, it can wirelessly transmit the data to nearby smartphones, tablets or computers,” Hussain explained in an interview with Arab News. The technology has been tested on marine species including blue crabs, turtles, stingrays, beluga whales, sharks and blue fin tuna. As a non-invasive and biocompatible system, Bluefin is the first tagging technology that does not restrict the animal’s movements or cause it harm. Moreover, Hussain’s lab is the only academic research group in the world that has paved the way for a manufacturable hydrogenous integration strategy for high-performance, flexible and stretchable electronics. His overarching research seeks to introduce new applications for web-integrated, interactive electronics. Hussain’s research field, known as transformational electronics, is an emerging area of electronic applications, and the concept of flexible and stretchable electronics promises to have wide-ranging uses in the wearable sensor technology sector. Wearable sensors greatly expand the application of the internet of things (IoT) In January 2020 Bluefin won the “Tech for a Better World” category at the highly competitive CES Innovation Awards in Las Vegas – an equivalent to the Nobel Prize in Consumer Electronics Technology. KAUST was the only academic research lab to receive recognition at the awards.
MUHAMMAD MUSTAFA HUSSAIN Professor of Electrical Engineering
WE ARE PROVIDING MARINE SCIENTISTS AROUND THE WORLD WITH THE TOOL TO ENABLE SAFE, LOW-COST AND WIDESPREAD IN-SITU STUDY OF OCEAN HEALTH TO SUPPORT CONSERVATION AND MANAGEMENT OF MARINE ECOSYSTEMS, WHICH IS OTHERWISE NOT POSSIBLE WITH CURRENT STATE-OF-THE-ART MARINE TAGS.
Special Section: KAUST’s Rapid Research Response to the COVID-19 Crisis UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD “My experience of working with KAUST through the collaboration initiated by Vice President for Research Donal Bradley has been excellent. Professors Arnab Pain and Samir Hamdan have provided great feedback on our COVID-19 RT-LAMP test, with many useful insights into how to take it forward for clinical use. KAUST’s synthesis and delivery of enzyme reagents has been especially timely.” Professor Zhanfeng Cui, Donald Pollock Professor of Chemical Engineering
Introduction Following a call by President Tony Chan for KAUST principal investigators to contribute through their research capabilities to alleviate the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts coordinated by Donal Bradley, KAUST Vice President for Research, and Pierre Magistretti, KAUST Dean of the Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering division, mobilized a group of faculty to form the Rapid Research Response Team (R3T). The focus of R3T is to collaborate with and strongly support the Kingdomâ€™s health care stakeholders to help combat the spread of COVID-19. Efforts are focusing on the development of rapid diagnostic platforms, genomic analysis of the virus, and bioinformatic tools to help track the spread and evolution of the disease. These efforts are based on research projects and competencies established over the years at KAUST. They are also part of the Smart Health Initiative recently established at KAUST to implement joint research projects with medical centers in the Kingdom. R3Tâ€™s group of faculty has been in close contact with the Saudi Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Ministry of Health to coordinate efforts that will ensure fast and reliable diagnostic tests, as demand for the tests in the Kingdom and internationally will increase. Initial efforts are aimed at optimizing existing tests to decrease the amount of reagents used without compromising reliability.
21 COVID-19 RESPONSE
SUPPORTING ACCURATE DIAGNOSTICS KING FAISAL SPECIALIST HOSPITAL “The model was fast to use and each case took approximately less than a minute to be processed. It is expected that such a model will make an important contribution to chest imaging, especially during the current pandemic.” Dr. Riham Eiada, King Faisal Specialist Hospital
Testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can be unreliable, and turnaround times for clinical samples to be sent from the field to the lab – especially from isolated rural areas – are lengthy. To add to the challenge, supply chains for the reagents needed for these tests have come under immense pressure. Governments around the world are backing point-of-care SARS-CoV-2 tests as a cost-effective and scalable means to combat the spread of the virus, but concerns have been raised about their accuracy. As Saudi Arabia looks to ramp up testing, researchers at KAUST are working on technologies that employ artificial intelligence (AI) and different sequencing methods to more quickly and accurately diagnose COVID-19 cases and suggest suitable treatments. AI-ASSISTANCE: Professor Xin Gao’s lab has been trialing an AI-based computer-aided diagnosis (CAD) system that can help detect COVID-19 infections using CT imaging. Most laboratory and point-of-care SARSCoV-2 testing relies on detecting the virus’ nucleic acid sequence, the gene sequence of this virus, or the antibody sequence produced by patients’ immune systems. This is the so-called gold standard of SARSCoV-2 diagnosis. However, as Professor Gao notes, “Clinical experience in China has shown that this type of diagnosis can produce a surprisingly high false-negative rate of between 30% and 50%.” Much of this comes down to how samples are taken, transported and stored. CT-imaging has been routinely used as one of the main diagnostic standards alongside nucleic acid detection. It can also be helpful in the prognosis and treatment stages. CT images from different stages of patients’ illnesses have very different patterns, and the early phase often
requires a high level of expertise and experience to differentiate from other lung infections. However, having radiologists analyze thousands of CT scans for COVID-19 patients is unfeasible. This is where Professor Gao’s lab comes in. Using CT scans, AI can more rapidly identify infection areas in a patient’s lungs, quantify the volume of the lung that is infected and then help clinicians decide what kind of treatment to prescribe. Though projects like these normally take years to develop, the CAD system developed at KAUST is already being trialed in several hospitals, including King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. EASING ENZYME SHORTAGES: In the coming months, the Saudi Arabian government plans to test 14.5m people, or nearly 40% of the population. Most test kits require reverse transcriptases and DNA polymerases: chemical reagents that amplify the viral genomic RNA to detectable levels. However, surging global demand for test kits has put significant strain on the labs that produce these reagents and other enzymes. Pre-empting potential shortages, Professor Samir Hamdan’s group in the bioscience center of the Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering division has been developing reagents for SARS-CoV-2 tests for use in biomedical and clinical labs. Professor Hamdan’s group has successfully established a robust production line of DNA polymerases in their laboratory and has started working on producing reverse transcriptases. The group has also patented DNA polymerases produced from micro-organisms in the Red Sea that can work under harsh conditions. They will be using these to devise new virus detection methods that could prove vital to Saudi Arabia’s testing programs.
CLINICAL EXPERIENCE IN CHINA HAS SHOWN THAT POINT-OF-CARE DIAGNOSIS CAN PRODUCE A XIN GAO Associate Professor of Computer Science, Head of KAUST’s Structural and Functional Bioinformatics Group, and Acting Associate Director of the Computational Bioscience Research Center
SURPRISINGLY HIGH FALSE-NEGATIVE RATE OF BETWEEN 30% AND 50%.
COVID-19 RESPONSE 22
With Saudi Arabia currently reporting the bulk of cases in the GCC, the diagnostics and reagent research at KAUST could play a vital role in aiding government efforts to expand testing and save lives. Through collaboration with the UK and China, KAUST researchers are developing diagnostics solutions for Saudi Arabia’s particular needs. Professor Hamdan and Professor Hauser’s work can alleviate supply chain pressure on diagnostics equipment and reagents. Professor Gao’s CAD system could play a key role in hospital triage, and his team is already working with the Saudi Center for Disease Prevention and Control, the Ministry of Health, and King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Center to analyze patient CT scans. Having spent months prior to the pandemic developing a similar platform for breast cancer diagnostics, which is now being adapted for COVID-19, Professor Gao’s lab is perfectly placed to assist in the global fight against the virus.
CHARLOTTE HAUSER Professor of Bioscience and Principal Investigator at the Laboratory for Nanomedicine
RELIABLE TESTS Professor Charlotte Hauser is working on a virus antibody test that would complement other diagnostic methods already in use. Alongside polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, which detects viral RNA, antibody tests detect the presence of antibodies produced by the body’s immune system in response to the virus. Immunodiagnostic antibody SAMIR HAMDAN Associate Professor of Bioscience and Associate Dean of Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering
tests are particularly important in improving diagnostic accuracy for infected people who show no symptoms and who produce false-negative results in PCR testing. They can also help identify people that carry antibodies against the
THERE’S A REASON COVID-19 HAS STOPPED THE WORLD IN
virus and who may now be immune to it. In Professor Haus-
ITS TRACKS: IT IS STEALTHY, PERVASIVE AND DANGEROUS
er’s lab, researchers are developing reliable, robust, simple
– AND IT CAUGHT US OFF GUARD. EVERY INDUSTRY IS LEARNING AND RESPONDING IN REAL TIME AS THE PANDEMIC DEVELOPS. ATTACKING WITH EVERY TOOL WE HAVE IS KEY TO STOPPING THE VIRUS AND PREVENTING ITS RETURN.
and cost-effective antibody test kits similar to ones used for monitoring diabetes or the onset of pregnancies. These are fast, inexpensive and easy to use, and will be beneficial for rapid field testing and for areas where infrastructure, resources and expertise are restricted.
23 COVID-19 RESPONSE
TRACKING VIRUS CHANGES
Tracking how the SARS-CoV-2 virus mutates is a key concern of health officials around the world. All viruses mutate, and as they do, their behavior and the symptoms they produce in their host can change. As it mutates among different populations, scientists have identified three broad SARS-CoV-2 genetic groups present across the globe. Any effective vaccine would need to be able to treat all these strains. Researchers at KAUST are leading efforts to track SARS-CoV-2’s mutation in Saudi Arabia, creating databases that could help health officials prepare for and isolate the most virulent strains of the virus. TRACKING VIRUS MUTATIONS: Scientists and health officials need to collect and analyze thousands of SARS-CoV-2 samples to track mutations. In Saudi Arabia, Professor Arnab Pain and his team at KAUST have been working with the Ministry of Health (MoH) and the Saudi Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to systematically track mutations in the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2 since the outbreak of the pandemic. Using samples taken from COVID-19-positive individuals in the country, they are building a database of the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in Saudi Arabia. This data is then analyzed and compared to global datasets to develop an individual genetic ‘barcode’ of all known SARS-CoV-2 viruses. Genetic barcoding
of SARS-CoV-2 viruses can assist public health officials in monitoring virus mutations and transmissions. By combining SARS-CoV-2 genome data with clinical metadata, health officials could potentially identify the genetic features and locations of the most virulent and transmissible local virus strains, and then target interventions accordingly. VIRUS MONITORING: Professor Mo Li’s lab is developing an ultra-sensitive and accurate diagnostics method that can detect and sequence the SARS-CoV-2 virus’ genomes, and provide invaluable data on its mutations. All of this can be done remotely and in real time using a pocket-sized sequencer called Oxford Nanopore minION. Currently, clinicians must ship samples collected in the field to centralized labs, a process which leads to delays and potential sample contamination. Using the Oxford Nanopore minION, clinicians can sample, sequence and detect the virus all in the field. While allowing for quicker diagnosis of infections, this method will also provide invaluable sequencing data that Professor Li’s team will use to monitor the virus’ mutations. Once validated with clinical samples, the diagnosis method being developed by the team will allow clinicians to sequence thousands of virus samples in parallel in a matter of hours, and help health officials track the possible emergence of more virulent strains.
WE WOULD LIKE TO UNDERSTAND HOW THESE COVID-19 CASES – THE VIRUSES THAT ARE CIRCULATING IN THE ARNAB PAIN Professor of Bioscience and Principal Investigator at the Pathogen Genomics Laboratory
POPULATION OF SAUDI ARABIA – ARE LINKED TO EACH OTHER, AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, HOW THEY ARE LINKED TO THE REST OF THE WORLD.
COVID-19 RESPONSE 24
IMPACT Once their test kits are deployed to the field, Professor Li’s team will be best placed to detect new virus strains in the country. With Professor Pain’s database, samples could then be compared to existing strains to assess virulence and tracked as they spread among the population. Professor Pain’s virus ‘barcode’ database could be crucial to the success of government interventions, as health officials would be able to more efficiently identify an imported strain of the virus and, in turn, assess the effectiveness of ongoing containment measures and adjust if needed. In the event of a second, deadlier virus outbreak, Professor Fischle’s work could prove key to understanding virus susceptibility and better prepare health care professionals.
WOLFGANG FISCHLE Professor of Bioscience and Principal Investigator at the Chromatin Laboratory
DETERMINING VIRUS SUSCEPTIBILITY One of the big unknowns for scientists and health officials is why a large proportion of individuals get infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus but do not develop any recognizable symptoms, whereas some patients progress to having life-threatening symptoms. Professor Wolfgang Fischle’s research group is trying to solve the puzzle by testing whether epigenomic chemical modifications of DNA, such as methylation in a patient’s cells, might determine their susceptibility to COVID-19. In collaboration with Professor Pain, Fischle’s team is analyzing DNA methyl-
IF SUCCESSFUL, OUR TECHNOLOGY WILL MAKE IT POSSIBLE TO TEST MORE PEOPLE MO LI Assistant Professor of Bioscience and Principal Investigator at the Stem Cell and Regeneration Laboratory
AND PROCESS HUNDREDS OF SAMPLES IN PARALLEL IN A TIMELY MANNER.
ation patterns of samples obtained from asymptomatic, mildly and severely affected COVID-19 patients. This data is then bioinformatically integrated with data on disease severity, viral load, survival and time to recovery, among other parameters, to derive diagnostic tools for identifying patients that will require special attention in hospitals before they develop life-threatening symptoms.
25 COVID-19 RESPONSE
MONITORING COVID-19 IN WASTEWATER
While public health responses to the pandemic have focused on preventing person-to-person transmission, initial studies suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 virus could also be spread through wastewater. It has recently been shown that the virus can be found in human feces for up to 33 days after a patient has tested negative for the respiratory symptoms of COVID-19. These findings have two broad implications. First, health officials may need to consider the increased risk of infection that exposure to untreated wastewater poses to communities, particularly vulnerable populations without adequate sewage systems. Second, the detectable presence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater could potentially offer public health officials an alternative method to monitor the prevalence of infections among the population, and may serve as an early-warning system for an outbreak. Building on international case studies, KAUST Professor Peiying Hong is working with government partners to test for and monitor SARS-CoV-2 in untreated wastewater in local communities. Monitoring for SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater has already been demonstrated in the Netherlands, the UK, the UAE, Australia, Switzerland and the US. In Queensland, Australia, for example, researchers used
viral RNA samples from a wastewater plant to estimate the number of infected individuals in the surrounding communities. Meanwhile, researchers in Switzerland found viral RNA samples in wastewater in cities that had yet to record significant numbers of infections, indicating that wastewater-based epidemiology could be a useful tool for predicting where COVID-19 hotspots might emerge. With data from the World Health Organization suggesting that approximately 80% of COVID-19 infections are mild or asymptomatic, there is a pressing need to detect and monitor asymptomatic individuals who may be unknowingly transmitting the virus to others during and after an outbreak has subsided. Professor Hong and other researchers at the Water Desalination and Reuse Center aim to detect SARS-CoV-2-infected community members who have previously gone undetected under the current quarantine and swab-testing system. In collaboration with the Ministry of Health, Professor Hongâ€™s team has started sampling wastewater collected from KAUSTâ€™s campus and in Jeddah. Pending the success of this pilot program, monitoring could be expanded at a national level.
WE CAN ESTABLISH THE BASELINE ABUNDANCE OF THE VIRUS IN WASTEWATER THROUGH CONTINUOUS PEIYING HONG Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering and Faculty Member at the Water Desalination and Reuse Center
MONITORING, AND ANY DEVIATIONS FROM THIS BASELINE COULD INDICATE FUTURE PANDEMICS.
COVID-19 RESPONSE 26
IMPACT Some of the wastewater testing methods being trialed by Professor Hongâ€™s lab could help Saudi health officials more accurately and efficiently measure infection rates across communities. Wastewater-based epidemiology could also prove crucial in predicting localised outbreaks of the virus before they happen. Studies elsewhere have shown how a significant increase in the concentration of virus RNA in wastewater can act as a kind of early-warning system for a pending outbreak. Testing for the virus in wastewater is also potentially a more efficient and affordable way to monitor SARS-CoV-2 infections in Saudi Arabia, as mass testing programs are costly and place significant pressure on the supply of testing kits and laboratory analysis systems. In the midto long term, the kind of continuous wastewater monitoring framework Professor Hongâ€™s lab is developing could also help government authorities predict future outbreaks of other novel viruses.
27 COVID-19 RESPONSE
IDENTIFYING & REPURPOSING EXISTING TREATMENTS Social distancing and lockdown measures can only do so much to combat the virus. With over 7 million cases and more than 400,000 deaths as of June 2020, COVID-19 is already one of the deadliest viruses in history. A proven vaccine that can be affordably mass produced and distributed is still many months – or even years – away. In the meantime, scientists are trying to identify existing drugs that can be repurposed to treat COVID-19. REAGENTS IN THERAPEUTIC TREATMENT: Professor Valerio Orlando’s lab is exploring the possibility of using novel generation antisense oligonucleotides as an adjuvant in the therapeutic treatment of COVID-19. Antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) are small pieces of DNA or RNA that can bind to specific molecules of RNA and block them. Scientists believe that ASOs could be used to effectively block SARS-CoV-2’s RNA-polymerase complex and thereby inhibit virus replication and transcription. ASOs could also be used to prevent immune systems from being overwhelmed by the virus. This hypothesis stems from observations made in hospitals in Italy and China, where beneficial effects and full remission were reported in some patients treated with anti-inflammatory compounds against rheumatoid arthritis, in combination with conventional antiviral drugs. When used with traditional antivirals, adjuvants such as ASOs can improve a patient’s response to traditional antivirals currently being used to treat COVID-19. Inflammation is the immune system’s natural response to pathogens. However, in acute infections like those caused by coronaviruses, the high rate of inflammatory response may overtake the capacity of
the immune system. Professor Orlando’s team is building on their research into the correlation between inflammation and aging to understand how the body’s own immune response to COVID-19 might be damaging lung tissue, and therefore inadvertently aggravating the disease. To prevent this, his team wants to see if ASOs can help the immune system better control its response to the virus. “We thought to target not the virus itself, but the RNA that are associated with the viral infection, with the hope of seeing the amelioration of the immune response,” he said. So far, Professor Orlando’s lab has identified new targets potentially involved in overactive immune system responses, and modeled how ASOs could be used against them. With help from international and national labs, he and his team hope to identify a novel, effective and low-toxicity adjuvant treatment against COVID-19 in the coming months. EXISTING TREATMENTS: At KAUST’s Computational Bioscience Research Center (CBRC), Distinguished Professor Takashi Gojobori and Senior Bioinformatician Dr. Intikhab Alam are trying to identify existing drugs that could be repurposed to treat COVID-19 patients. Their work involves mapping the genetic structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, comparing and analyzing different types of coronaviruses, and scanning billions of environmental samples for traces of SARS-CoV-2. By doing this, CBRC researchers hope to develop a system to identify drugs that are already approved for human use that can be modified to fight COVID-19. At the heart of this is the KAUST metagenome analysis platform, which can analyze the genetic sequence data of millions of types of organisms.
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC HAS HELPED SOCIETY RECOGNIZE THE VALUE OF KNOWLEDGE; SCIENTISTS VALERIO ORLANDO Professor of Bioscience and Principal Investigator of the KAUST Environmental Epigenetics Program
HAVE A VOICE NOW.
COVID-19 RESPONSE 28
IMPACT Though much attention is on the race to find a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, research at KAUST is also focused on finding treatment options that could be implemented at hospitals far sooner, thereby saving countless lives. The research output from Professor Orlando, Professor Gojobori and Professor Gao’s labs are already providing health officials with viable treatment options, and KAUST has been working closely with government partners to ensure that its research can be integrated into public health interventions. For instance, a member of Professor Gojobori’s team currently serves on the National Committee on Coronavirus Research and has been working closely with the Saudi Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
XIN GAO Associate Professor of Computer Science, Head of KAUST’s Structural and Functional Bioinformatics Group, and Acting Associate Director of the Computational Bioscience Research Center
REPURPOSING DRUGS Similar to the research currently under way at the CBRC, Professor Xin Gao is also looking into existing drugs that could be repurposed to treat COVID-19. Drug repositioning – that is, the discovery of new clinical applications for drugs already approved for different therapeutic contexts – could provide an effective shortcut to bring COVID-19 treatments to the bedside in a timely manner. Using computational analysis, Professor Gao and other international researchers recently published a study on existing drugs that are potentially able to counteract SARS-CoV-2 infection, as well
WE HAVE THE RESOURCES – COMPUTER CLUSTERS, AND SPECIALIZED ANALYTIC AND VISUALIZATION TAKASHI GOJOBORI Distinguished Professor of Bioscience and Acting Director of the Computational Bioscience Research Center
SOFTWARE – AS WELL AS THE EXPERTISE TO MEET THIS GLOBAL CHALLENGE.
as provide insights on their mode of action. Overall, the researchers identified 39 compounds that could be tested experimentally against a SARS-CoV-2 infection. Histone deacetylase inhibitors, chemical compounds with a long history of use in psychiatry and neurology as mood stabilizers and anti-epileptics, were identified as potentially promising drugs that could be repurposed to treat COVID-19.
29 COVID-19 RESPONSE
PREDICTING OUTBREAKS & INFORMING POLICY DECISIONS Governments around the world have been using cell phone tracking in the fight against COVID-19. This data has been used in several intrusive and non-intrusive interventions, ranging from surveillance of virus carriers to ensure that they are self-isolating, to providing warnings to individuals who may have come in contact with an infected person. The Belgian government, for example, has been tracking its population’s movements at a broader and aggregated level to see if confinement measures are working. At KAUST, researchers want to tap into aggregated cell phone data and social media posts in Saudi Arabia to track population movements and sentiments, and thereby predict potential outbreaks before they happen. MONITORING MOVEMENTS: Professor Paula Moraga is part of a multidisciplinary KAUST research team that is creating computational models to track the evolution of COVID-19, predict the number of cases in a particular region and help health officials allocate resources accordingly. Though scientists know how SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted, it is still unclear what other factors may contribute to increased infection rates. For example, scientists still do not know if seasonal factors such as temperature or humidity affect transmission rates, as is the case with other diseases such as malaria. This makes predicting and tracking SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks more difficult. Dr. Moraga’s team wants to use population movement data from cell phone tracking to monitor the virus. To respect user privacy, Dr. Moraga’s team will only receive aggregated data from mobile providers. They will also tap into aggregated data from social media and other sourc-
es, such as Google searches, where users talk about their symptoms or search for information about treatment. This data can be fed into their computational model to potentially forecast the number of cases and help to allocate resources in the best way. The output will be shared with health officials and the general public through a live dashboard, which will keep track of several virus indicators and information on health facilities, such as the number of beds and ventilators. MAPPING SENTIMENT: At the Computational Bioscience Research Center, Professor Xiangliang Zhang is also tracking and analyzing online sentiment to develop an early-warning system for COVID-19 outbreaks. Building on her team’s experience using computer models to analyze social media posts on Twitter, Professor Zhang shifted her focus to COVID-19 when the pandemic began. Employing algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence, the computational model developed by Professor Zhang’s team can analyze tweets to identify Twitter users’ interests and track changes over time. Amid the ongoing pandemic, Professor Zhang’s team has been using machine learning to analyze the millions of tweets published using hashtags like #coronavirus or #covid19. Like Dr. Moraga’s research, Professor Zhang’s analysis of Twitter sentiment will be fed into a real-time dashboard, where it will be mapped according to color codes. As Professor Zhang explains, “Blue means calm, denoting that users are not very anxious or panicked, whereas red means people are fearful, scared or have negative feelings.”
PUBLIC HEALTH AUTHORITIES WILL BE ABLE TO SEE HOW THEIR REGIONS ARE DOING AND HOW THEY NEED TO PLAN THEIR RESPONSE TO THIS EPIDEMIC, WHILE THE GENERAL PUBLIC WILL GET PAULA MORAGA Assistant Professor of Statistics
A SENSE OF THE REAL SITUATION OF THE DISEASE.
COVID-19 RESPONSE 30
IMPACT By mid-June, news or sentiments about COVID-19 had been tweeted over 628 million times, yet the data from Twitter and other social media platforms is not being utilized to its full potential. Up until now, governments have been using cell phone data and geolocations to enforce confinement measures and encourage social distancing. When plugged into computational models supported by supercomputing systems like Shaheen II, this kind of data can provide invaluable insight on population movements and sentiment during a virus outbreak. As Dr. Moraga and Professor Zhang’s research demonstrates, data from social media can be used in non-intrusive ways to not only monitor outbreaks, but maybe even predict them.
SUPERCOMPUTER SUPPORT The development of computational models to better understand and track COVID-19 is being supported by KAUST’s supercomputer infrastructure and expertise. At the core of this is Shaheen II, the largest and most powerful supercomputer in the Middle East. Housed at the KAUST Supercomputing Core Lab (KSL), Shaheen II has supported hundreds of users since its launch in 2015, and over 50% of the university’s faculty run projects on the system. The system also supports researchers from nearly 20 external research institutions or corporations across Saudi Arabia. Since the start of the pandemic, a portion of
I WANT TO USE SENTIMENT ANALYSIS AND QUESTIONS XIANGLIANG ZHANG Associate Professor of Computer Science at the Computational Biosciene Research Center
Shaheen II’s capacity and KSL resources have been reallocated to support KAUST COVID-19 research. Underlining the university’s commitment to supporting both local and
FROM TWEETS TO HELP
global efforts to combat the virus, KSL recently opened
a call for proposals for COVID-19 research projects that require Shaheen II’s support.
31 COVID-19 RESPONSE
NAVIGATING THE CRISIS With so much information on social media and in the news, navigating the COVID-19 crisis can be difficult, confusing and scary. The top concerns are how this pandemic will play out, and whether governments and health infrastructure will cope. By prioritizing cooperation and information sharing, both internally among researchers as well as externally with other stakeholders across government and civil society, KAUST’s Rapid Research Response Team is working to answer these questions while providing actionable information for the general public and policymakers alike. COVID COMPASS: Making sense of the pandemic from the so-called infodemic – the deluge of information out there on COVID-19 in scientific research papers – is difficult for the scientific community. For the general public and policymakers, who face a barrage of information in the form of daily news articles and millions of social media posts, not to mention conspiracy theories, the task is even harder. To this end, KAUST researchers and other stakeholders launched the COVID Compass Taskforce. Led by Professor Carlos Duarte, the taskforce consists of 26 KAUST scientists alongside journalists, economists and public policy experts, and is committed to quickly publishing relevant and actionable data on the COVID-19 pandemic. This data comes from 20 different verified sources, is analyzed using computational models and then made available through the taskforce’s real-time dashboard. COVID Compass brings the most critical information on the pandemic together in one place. Behind the scenes, KAUST data scientists are run-
ning complex artificial intelligence-powered analysis and computational modeling to project the virus’ evolution. The output displayed on the dashboard is digestible and easy to understand though providing information on four key areas: COVID-19’s spread, the socio-economic cost, the impact on health care infrastructure and the effectiveness of government responses to the virus. Ultimately, the researchers behind COVID Compass want to use data to help answer pressing pandemic-related questions about personal safety, the risk to families, and the urgency of the threat to specific regions and countries. ENDGAME: With projections of infection numbers constantly changing and timelines on vaccines and treatments still unclear, how long the global COVID-19 pandemic will last is uncertain. In some countries, the disease continues to spread at an exponential rate, while in others the curve of new reported cases is flattening. However, under-reported cases and the threat of a second wave of outbreaks means there is still some way to go before societies can fully return to normal. Professor David Ketcheson is putting mathematical modeling to work to understand how transmission might play out. Like water molecules in a wave, the molecules in Professor Ketcheson’s COVID-19 model are people, either infected, susceptible or recovering. Using two parameters – the time it takes for virus infections to double (3-4 days) and the number of people an infected person passes the virus onto (on average 3 people) – Professor Ketcheson’s model has been successful in predicting the virus’ spread.
COVID COMPASS BRIDGES THE DISCONNECT BETWEEN THE WAY DATA IS PRESENTED AND THE CARLOS DUARTE Professor of Marine Science and Tarek Ahmed Juffali Research Chair in Red Sea Ecology
NEEDS OF THE PUBLIC AND POLICYMAKERS.
COVID-19 RESPONSE 32
IMPACT Knowledge is power, and researchers at KAUST are working hard to answer some of the most pressing questions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. The output from their statistical models have significant implications for both localized and global efforts to combat the virus. Professor Ketcheson’s work is crucial to helping governments predict the spread of the virus, and complements Professor Umbao’s work on predicting resource allocation needs that can help officials better prepare health facilities ahead of a rise in cases. Communicating these outputs in a digestible form is key. Free to access and distribute, reliable, constantly updated and forward looking, the COVID Compass developed by Professor Duarte’s team is helping governments and citizens navigate the pandemic and make informed decisions.
HERNANDO OMBAO Professor of Statistics and head of the Biostatistics Group
PREDICTING NEEDS Hospitals on the verge of running out of ventilators, nurses and doctors without adequate personal protective equipment, intensive care wards at capacity – these are common global news headlines during COVID-19. The speed at which the virus has spread and the number of people it has killed caught many governments off guard. Health care infrastructure in some countries such as Spain, Italy and the US have already been overrun. For other countries, though, it is not too late. Professor Hernando Ombao and his team in the Biostatistics Group are developing statistical models to predict patient admissions and hospitalization rates. They are working with daily infection data from the KAUST campus to pre-
DAVID KETCHESON Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics and Computational Science
dict the number of admissions at the local campus clinic and forecast the length of hospitalizations. This information is
ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THE
vital to preparing the hospitals on campus in case a nation-
PANDEMIC, EVEN IF THE
wide spike in cases takes place. As Professor Ombao explains,
FUTURE IS FRIGHTENING,
“If we operate under the assumption that Jeddah hospitals
IS POWERFUL AND
are at full capacity and at some point the KAUST clinic will
have to take care of local residents, then our model can help forecast if we’ll have enough beds.”
33 COVID-19 RESPONSE
SUPPORTING HOSPITALS & HEALTH WORKERS Disruptions to global supply chains and a surge in demand for gloves, masks, face shields and gowns, among other medical equipment, has led to shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other devices like ventilators in many hospitals around the world. This has left doctors, nurses and other frontline health workers dangerously ill-equipped to care for COVID-19 patients and avoid infection themselves. Some health facilities have had to temporarily close due to PPE shortages. Early in the crisis, the Saudi Arabian government blocked all exports of medical devices and local factories started producing face masks. As of May 2020 local factories were producing 3.7 million face masks per week to protect residents and health workers alike. Working with government partners and private sector stakeholders, researchers at KAUST are contributing to the national effort through the design and production of PPE and medical devices. PROTECTING FRONTLINE WORKERS: Face shields that comprise a transparent plastic barrier that covers most of the face have been touted by some health officials as a better disease-fighting tool than simple cloth masks. Previous studies have shown that they can potentially reduce a person’s viral exposure to a cough by 96%. Unlike many cloth masks, they can also be cleaned and reused repeatedly, and are thus proving vital amid PPE shortages. They are already being mass produced by Nike, Apple, Ford, Harvard University and tech companies in Egypt.
Researchers at KAUST’s Core Labs, in collaboration with British automotive company McLaren and Saudi investment conglomerate Olayan Group, have designed and produced face shields for use by local frontline hospital staff. Prototypes have been sent to the National Guard Hospital for testing and, once vetted, KAUST will share the designs with the country’s industrial sector so that they can be mass produced. LIFESAVING SUPPORT: Ventilators are vital to keeping COVID-19 patients with severe respiratory symptoms alive. Critical shortages of the devices have come to symbolize a lack of preparedness for pandemics. Engineers across the world have stepped up to the plate in designing and manufacturing simple, cheap, yet effective ventilator devices. At KAUST, researchers have crafted a mechanism to automate already existing manual Ambu bags to increase health service delivery efficiency. Ambu bags are manual resuscitator devices or ‘self-inflating bags’ that are used globally to provide positive pressure ventilation to patients who are not breathing or not breathing adequately. These bags require that the medical professional continually inflates the bag in a regular rhythm to assist the patient with breathing. KAUST researchers designed and created a mechanical actuator for Ambu bags, which automatically inflates the bag. This allows medical professionals to treat other patients and not be tied to one individual.
IN MARCH, KAUST JOINED THE GLOBAL EFFORT TO PROVIDE FAST AND EFFECTIVE SOLUTIONS TO ASSIST THOSE ON THE FRONT JUSTIN MYNAR Executive Director at KAUST Core Labs
LINE OF MEDICAL CARE.
COVID-19 RESPONSE 34
IMPACT KAUST researchers are leading the local design of affordable but effective personal protective equipment and medical devices that can be rapidly produced and deployed. These designs are easy to replicate for manufacturers, require minimal parts that can be sourced locally, and are easy to deploy and use at the point of care. The KAUST-produced mechanical actuator, for instance, can be easily connected to Ambu bags, which are readily available in most medical facilities and are internationally standardized in terms of both size and performance.
OLAYAN GROUP â€œWe had to do something when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and ensuring adequate supplies of PPE was one of the main challenges. When we looked for a technical partner with whom to collaborate, what better choice was there than KAUST? The speed at which KAUST was able to pivot and gear up to deliver an innovative, reliable and cost-effective face protector and design a fit-to-purpose ventilator was world class, proving yet again that KAUST is well positioned to fulfill its vision in Saudi Arabia and globally.â€? Lubna S. Olayan, Olayan Group
35 KAUST IN BRIEF
university among those founded since 1999 (Nature Index 2019, and “a3” academic ranking by Academics for Academics 2018)
in number of citations per faculty (QS World University Rankings 2020)
in article output in natural sciences (normalized) (Nature Index 2019)
fractional authorship of the Kingdom’s top science articles* (Nature Index 2020) *appearing in Nature Index journals and published by academic institutions
NATURE INDEX “The performance of KAUST after only its 10th year since foundation is truly remarkable. In the Nature Index 2020 annual tables, it is 33rd among the top 100 rising stars in physical sciences and 51st in earth and environmental sciences, and has achieved almost a 50% increase in both areas over four years.” David Swinbanks, Founder of Nature Index
KAUST IN BRIEF 36
among top-25 performing universities in patents awarded (size normalized) (U-Multirank 2019-20 World University Rankings)
among top 50 performing education institutions in patent applications (PCT) (WIPO 2020)
Using KAUSTâ€™s Shaheen II supercomputer to understand COVID-19
projects to understand dynamics of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, such as in silico molecular docking
million core-hours allocated to COVID-19 research
in computational power worldwide when Shaheen II was placed into service Operated by KAUST in the national interest since 2015
External users of Shaheen II for COVID-19 research include Jouf University, King Khalid University, Northern Border University and Taief University
Credits EDITOR-IN-CHIEF David Keyes Senior Associate to the President for Strategic Partnerships and Global Branding EDITORIAL BOARD Najah Ashry Senior Associate to the President and Vice President for Strategic National Advancement Donal Bradley Vice President for Research Kevin Cullen Vice President for Innovation and Economic Development Yves Gnanou Vice President for Academic Affairs MANAGING EDITORS Nicholas Demille Senior Advisor for Corporate Communications Mark Mulqueen Director for Global Branding and Communications
Produced in collaboration with Oxford Business Group
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