Refugee researcher faces the future

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Media captionRefugee student's pioneering work on facial paralysis

A postgraduate researcher at Glasgow University is developing new technology designed to help people with paralysed faces.

Mahmoud Amir Alagha is working in four dimensions to capture digitally the way partial paralysis affects people's expressions.

His research is supported by the university which awarded him a scholarship and supported him when, as a refugee from the conflict in Syria, he applied for permission to stay in the UK.

Mahmoud began studying in Glasgow in 2014 but was only able to complete his postgraduate course because he received a fee-waiver scholarship from the university.

The 28-year-old graduated with distinction in his Masters degree and hopes to take his research to a higher level.

He is currently applying to do his PhD and the UK government has given him leave to remain for five years.

Image caption Mahmoud Amir Alagha hopes to take his research to a higher level

Mahmoud has been using technology developed in Scotland to capture 3D images of moving faces.

"This is stepping into the fourth dimension," he says. "Capturing 3D images over time."

After capturing the images he superimposes a digital mask.

"This mask is composed of points, could be thousands," Mahmoud says.

"It is a mathematical construction so you can do decimation to make more points or reduce the number of points.

"It depends how much is really clinically significant."

Image copyright Glasgow University
Image copyright Glasgow University
Image copyright Glasgow University

Those thousands of reference points highlight how our faces move, or fail to move, because of injury, conditions such as Bell's Palsy or the aftermath of surgery, which can cause facial paralysis.

Mahmoud say this technique could provide pointers to the correct treatment.

He says: "Muscles move the face. There are a very big number of muscles.

"Being able to decode the face by region, for example, you can know that this muscle that is being supplied by that branch of the nerve is being affected because it is paralysed or is weak.

"Being able to study the region rather than the whole face, or both of them, gives us a new dimension into the management of these cases."

Mahmoud, who is from war-torn Aleppo, was half way through his masters degree when he became a refugee.

He says: "By the end of the first year, the situation in Syria got mad. I had at some point to apply for asylum in the UK and the asylum process was harsh.

"I could not afford the tuition fees for the second year. At that point I was stepping into the unknown. I felt like I was losing my solid ground."

Ashraf Ayoub, professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at Glasgow University, has been Mahmoud's mentor and supporter during his quest for refugee status.

He says: "If it was rejected he would have been deported immediately. That would have been very dangerous for him and undermine what he had achieved in the first year and destroy him as a human being and as a potential scientific researcher."

Practical support came from the university in the form of the scholarship, one of four given to refugee students.

Image caption Ashraf Ayoub, professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at Glasgow University, has been Mahmoud's mentor

Prof Ayoub says it has paid off handsomely.

He says: "Number one, the enthusiasm. He wanted really to break the mould and innovate the application of this technology.

"He also brought to it some of his own ideas of how we take this further. He also conducted a very successful pilot study as part of his Masters degree that he was awarded with distinction."

Since the 1970s, the Glasgow Coma scale, developed by two Glasgow university professors at the Southern General has been the global standard for assessing patient consciousness.

Mahmoud wants to create a similar framework in his own field - the Glasgow Index of Facial Paralysis.

He says: "How can you really diagnose a patient or not without being subjective, to say 'yes, there is improvement' or relying on a ruler to measure movement between two parts of the face?

"Having something that will tell you precisely what movement is there, the speed, the direction, the pattern of movement, where you can compare before and after, that is something that will benefit the patients and will advance the management of these patients."