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[Article series] The experts behind Luxembourg's COVID-19 fight

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Published on Tuesday, 01 September 2020

Dr Jorge Augusto Meira and PhD student Fernando Kaway Carvalho Ota work together at the University of Luxembourg’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT). As a research associate Meira focuses on data science and machine learning, whereas Ota comes from a cybersecurity background.

When COVID-19 hit they realised they could combine their skillset to work on a project they call “Pocket Rehab”. This research project will lay the technological foundations for an app that will help keep cardiovascular patients safe during the COVID-19 crisis. At the end of May the project was awarded an FNR grant for expedited research related to COVID-19.

How did you come up with the idea of researching an app for cardiovascular patients as part of the fight against COVID-19?

Fernando Kaway Carvalho Ota: I was visiting my family in Brazil when the quarantine began and so have had to see the crisis through here. While talking to an acquaintance here, Dr Gerson Cipriano Junior, who is a medical researcher at the University of Brasilia, I found out that in Brazil, a majority of COVID-19 deaths under 60 were cases that were comorbid with cardiovascular disease. I learned that there is increasing evidence that COVID-19 enters the body as a respiratory disease, but then also attacks the body's vascular system, which is why we see symptoms like strokes, blood clots, or even heart attacks associated with the virus. This makes individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular diseases very vulnerable and many skip regular doctor’s appointments because they fear infection. Yet, they still have very real health needs that are now going unaddressed, and this is leading to increased mortality among cardiovascular patients even when they completely avoid COVID-19. During this discussion with Dr Cipriano I realised it might be possible to use our research to offer this vulnerable group of patients a better alternative. So together with Dr Meira, the three of us came up with the idea for a smart app that can monitor and guide at-home treatment programmes. When it is developed, the app will be a hub for exchanging information and insights among a patient’s entire healthcare team - including supervising doctors, pharmacists, physiotherapists, equipment providers, medical laboratories, and maybe more. It will enable an at-home treatment programme that will improve a patient’s ability to look after their pre-existing conditions if they are avoiding traditional medical appointments. What we are doing in the research project is investigating the best technological options for implementing the idea and laying the groundwork for developing the app.

Tell us about the research questions your project is addressing. What do you need to know before the app can be developed?

Jorge Augusto Meira: The first half of our research relates to my work as a data scientist and machine learning specialist: data collection and data processing. We want to be able to use data from wearable devices, like smartwatches or fitness trackers, that are widely available and affordable for the majority of Brazilian patients. This will help the medical team monitor the patient’s progress and successes during their at-home treatment. So, I will be researching how to get high-quality data from this diverse field of input devices. Second, I will be identifying the best algorithms for a powerful-but-private treatment recommendation system. This system will offer the medical team deep insights into treatment options for individual patients based on the successes of their peers around the globe.

Ota: The second half of the research falls under my specialty, privacy and security. We need to ensure that patients retain control over their medical data both internally and externally. On the internal side of privacy, patients need to have the ability to share targeted pieces of their medical data with select members of their medical team. This is important as they deserve to have control over their information, and is a key question of the research project as the implementation of a protocol that allows for partial decryption is complex. Outwardly, we need to ensure that patient data is safe from prying eyes. To ensure this, I will be examining the most secure options for storing and processing patient data in the app’s backend.

Will you be testing your solutions in the field?

Ota: Yes! We have medical research partners at the University of Miami, Florida, at Hasselt University in Belgium, and at the University of Brasilia. They will be working with us to test and evaluate our solutions in real-world conditions. The data and feedback they give us is the lifeblood of the project, and they are the ones who will ultimately tell us if what we’re doing is working or not.

Meira: The feedback we receive from medical professionals and patients is what matters the most. We want to create something that really helps them treat cardiovascular disease more effectively at home, and when we know that it is working I’ll count the project as a success.