Aspiring medical physicist determined to help save lives


Early career scholar: Umi hopes her PhD research will in future translate into everyday clinical practice for beta-thalassaemia patients.

WITH an interest in physics, one can be involved in the medical field, as Umi Nabilah Ismail discovered as a Form Five student. It led to her studying medical physics at the tertiary level as an undergraduate and later, a master’s student.

Now a second year PhD student at Universiti Malaya (UM), she recently won the Early Career Medical Physicists Scholarship Award by the Winter Institute of Medical Physics (WIMP) – a feat her supervisor Prof Ng Kwan Hoong has likened to putting UM on par with MD Anderson Cancer Centre (MDACC) in Houston, Texas, the United States.

As her win last month has gained media attention, she hopes more people will realise the importance of medical physicists in research and clinical settings.

“Physics was my favourite subject in secondary school. Medical physics uses physics principles, methods and techniques (in the medical field), from the diagnosis to the treatment of patients. I feel honoured receiving the award, ” said the 26-year-old, who was also one of the top four individuals included in the “Class of 2021 Early Career Scholars” at this year’s WIMP virtual meeting.

In her research study, Umi’s prime investigation is the feasibility of marrow adipose tissue quantification using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as a biomarker for beta-thalassaemia.

According to Umi, approximately 4.5% of the Malaysian population are beta-thalassaemia carriers.

“As the only curative option for beta-thalassaemia right now is bone marrow transplant, where the success rate is quite low, most severe patients are managed by lifelong blood transfusion. Frequent blood transfusion can cause added complications to the patients, ” she explained.

While there are novel therapies being developed to treat beta-thalassaemia, there is a need to have biomarkers that can truly reflect the efficacy of the treatment.

“The current biomarkers can be affected by body iron overload and will not truly reflect body erythropoietic activity, ” she said.

The idea to use MRI to study the bone marrow of beta-thalassaemia patients came from Prof Dr Nicholas Jackson, a haematologist at Universiti Malaya Medical Centre who first consulted Prof Ng at UM’s Department of Biomedical Imaging, Faculty of Medicine.

“Prof Jackson suggested that a direct study on the bone marrow of beta-thalassaemia patients may enable an accurate measure of body erythropoietic activity.

“We can do this through biopsy and aspiration but it is invasive and expensive, which will not be suitable for longitudinal studies.

“As MRI has been used widely to study bone marrow, he felt that we can use it to study the bone marrow of beta-thalassaemia patients, ” she said.

Umi hopes that her PhD research will in future translate into everyday clinical practice for beta-thalassaemia patients.

“My PhD research is a small part of a bigger project. The effort to prove marrow adipose tissue as a non-invasive prognostic biomarker for beta-thalassaemia is ongoing and I plan to continue this project even after my PhD study, ” she said.

Umi’s achievement is a moment of pride for Prof Ng and her two other supervisors, Dr Azlan Che Ahmad and Dr Shasha Khairullah – from the Department of Biomedical Imaging and the Department of Medicine, respectively.

“One of the winners is from MDACC. It is the most advanced cancer treatment centre in the world. Through her win, Umi has shown that UM and MDACC are equal, ” said Prof Ng.

He added that what makes Umi’s “needs-driven” research stand out is its interdisciplinary nature.

“Dr Azlan and I are medical physicists. We do imaging and early diagnosis and we work with Dr Shasha, who looks after thalassaemia patients. To solve such complex health problems, we need to approach several specialties, ” he said of the team who is part of the research.

A firm believer of the “just do it” approach, Prof Ng, who encouraged Umi to take part in the WIMP, urged students to be more proactive in seeking opportunities to expand their horizons.

“Many students are shy to take part in competitions. They think they have no chance of winning, or competing with international students. It is extremely important to gain exposure, to interact with international students, and to encourage collaboration, ” he said.

Through her participation, Umi has strengthened her confidence and is an example for other students, he added. Umi was among the 18 early career medical physicists from 15 countries chosen to present their projects in the final round of the competition. The scholarship winners each receive US$1,000 (RM4,102) and will have mentorship opportunities with experts in the international community.

The annual WIMP is a meeting for researchers and professionals in the medical physics field.

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