The Arab world still struggles with health issues less common in other areas of the developed world. Across the region there is a relatively high rate of cardiovascular conditions, liver cirrhosis, and cancer. These, among other factors, have contributed to the reduced life expectancy in the Arab world (at 70 years, this is approximately 10 years lower than other high-income countries).

An article in a recent issue of the Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery suggests that a potential input to help address this challenge comes in the form of biological computing. Advances in computing have proven to be nothing if not consistent in the modern age and is now capable of crunching the massive volumes of data generated in modern biomedical research.

The authors of the paper – collaborating across research institutes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan Lebanon, and the UAE – illustrate how researchers from across the Arab world have been able to punch above their weight in rapid advances in biomedical computing, with its knock-on effect on healthcare in the region.

Four areas are highlighted in the paper that indicate where the Arab world has played a significant role in the development of biomedical computing – and where it will continue to lead. Biomedical imaging and analysis is one of the first areas where research, and importantly, application, has led to positive healthcare impacts in the Arab world. From shoe insoles to cancer diagnosis, imaging has played a major role in driving how biomedical computing has developed and how it’s led to benefits for the end users – patients. Another key area is in biomedical signal analysis, using advanced computing to detect the various physiological signals that our bodies generate, and in understanding how these should look in healthy individuals, and how these vary in disease states. For example, brain scans, electrocardiograms, and other techniques have offered insights to improve predictions of heart attack, understanding of Alzheimer’s diseases, and are opening doors to other aspects of health not previously known. Bioinformatics has offered insights into how inherited and prevalent diseases impact across the Arab world. Linking the computing power of bioinformatics with the increases in accessibility to genomic analysis in recent years has identified a range of specific mutations responsible for these diseases and provided insights into why they are so common across the region.

All of the above applications of biomedical computing are beginning to see potential turned into action through the high levels of entrepreneurialism in the region. Governments have provided very effective financial and practical support to advancing these technologies by encouraging start-ups, by supporting the development of university programs based on these technologies, and by committing resources to building national and international databases of genomic information. The novel health-tech ventures that are popping out of these initiatives are attracting further investment from larger healthcare firms and venture capitalists, allowing them to leverage the ever-growing body of genomic data.

The future will rely on the ongoing support of these activities across the Arab world. Cross-country collaboration should be increasingly encouraged to realise broader benefits.