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School of Continuing Education's Vezen Wu Helps Develop New Public Health Software

By Caroline Ladhani

Vezen Wu

School of Continuing Education faculty member and alumnus Vezen Wu is capitalizing on computing knowledge he learned in the School's Computer Technology and Applications (CTA) program to create computer software addressing global public health concerns like SARS and bioterrorism. The 25-year-old Wu says the software could provide public health professionals with access to up-to-the-minute global health information in the same way the stock market is monitored.

Wu, an equity analyst on Wall Street with an undergraduate biology degree, graduated from and began teaching in the CTA program last year. The evening certificate program, a rigorous, four-semester course, teaches cutting-edge information technologies through various tracks of study. These include information systems design and analysis, computer programming, software development and network administration and design. Two new tracks -- network security and advanced database and application design -- will be offered in fall 2003, with a geospatial technologies track slated for spring 2004.

Wu said the skills he learned in Columbia's CTA program have been integral in developing the new software, called MedfoLink. His work on MedfoLink is in collaboration with a small, interdisciplinary team of Columbia faculty and students.

"We developed MedfoLink using the modern technologies that the CTA Program teaches," said Wu. "MedfoLink will enable the computerized processing of standard medical language from patient records, from which we can gather real-time statistics on patient populations. These real-time statistics in turn will enable the monitoring of global health just like we monitor the global stock markets. The faster we can detect an outbreak, the faster we can assemble the resources to prevent that outbreak from spreading."

One of the goals is to speed up the slow process of digitizing patient medical charts. The software would allow medical professionals to input patient information in any form, even orally, without requiring a rigidly standardized entry format.

"We are developing MedfoLink to solve the real problem, which is computers' inability to understand human speech," said Wu. "MedfoLink will thus be able to accept any kind of input, which can range from patient records on paper to oral dictations from physicians."

Wu's exposure to computers began at just three years of age. That year, his father, a civil engineer and software development pioneer for the energy industry, bought his son a computer. With this early IBM PC, Wu's father taught him the foundations of the computer language BASIC. The youngster continued developing his computing skills by taking classes and reading books.

During this time, Wu's mother nurtured in him an interest in biology and medicine, which would later lead to his becoming a Top 10 Winner in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (now called the Intel Science Talent Search).

When the Jacksonville, Florida native was five, his mother introduced him to a PBS NOVA documentary about insect-eating plants, including the so-called "pitcher plant." Wu became enchanted by them. He soon amassed an extensive, diverse collection of rare species by trading with other enthusiasts around the world. With some 3,000 plants in all, perhaps one of the largest such collections in the world, Wu cultivated the plants in special climate-controlled greenhouses in the family backyard.

"Although I knew of the Venus Fly Trap, I was fascinated to learn about other carnivorous plants from Southeast Asia that eat mammals as part of their daily diet," said Wu. "These have traps larger than footballs that consume birds and rats as regular feed. When I learned that native tribes used extracts of these tropical pitcher plants to treat infections, I decided to research their drug potential."

In seventh grade, Wu discovered a new anti-bacterial agent in one of his carnivorous plants. He spent the next few years isolating the compound and proving that it was indeed unique. In the end, he had not only identified a new antibiotic, he had discovered a substance that is highly effective in combating a special, drug-resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus, the leading cause of hospital-acquired infections. At age 18, the discovery earned him the Westinghouse award, and the antibiotic is now in drug development at a pharmaceutical company.

In the future, Wu would like to start his own biotechnology firm for the development and commercialization of novel drug therapies.

"There are so many discoveries that can save lives but never reach the public because of business hurdles that are difficult for researchers to overcome," he said. "I would like to combine my skills in technology, medicine and business to make these lifesaving discoveries accessible to everyone."

In the coming months, the team will fine tune the MedfoLink software. Wu himself will also help build corporate partnerships for the CTA program. He has already established a partnership with Embarcadero Technologies, which provides CTA students with free licenses for Embarcadero's database tools software.

In addition to Wu, the interdisciplinary team developing the MedfoLink software includes Mitchell Berman, professor of anesthesiology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, who originally posed the problem the software is aiming to address. Also on the team are Alvin Wald, professor of engineering, and two engineering students Armen Kherlopian and Joseph Gerrein.

The team's work on MedfoLink is slated for future publication in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE) Proceedings. Notably, the team's business plan won the top prize at the 2003 Columbia University Business Plan Challenge. They have also filed a provisional patent application and are working to develop a commercial vision with the help of Rene Baston of Columbia's Science and Technology Ventures, Columbia's technology transfer office.

The CTA program offers students the opportunity to acquire current, applicable knowledge and skills in one of several areas of specialization through an intensive, focused curriculum.

Published: Jun 19, 2003
Last modified: Jun 18, 2003

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