He is only 34 years of age among researchers who usually have not made their mark before the age of 45. Yet Dr. Hossam Haick, since 2006 a senior lecturer in chemical engineering and nanotechnology at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology already has several patents in his pocket. Last year he was included as one of the world's 35 "most-promising young scientists" in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "TR35" list in its Technology Review magazine.
Only a few weeks ago, the Nazareth-born Christian Arab published a paper in the prestigious Nature Nanotechnology on his development with Technion colleagues of a sensor composed of gold nanoparticles that can differentiate between the breath of lung, breast and colon cancer patients and that of healthy people; this may form the basis of an inexpensive, portable noninvasive diagnostic tool the size of a cellular phone that would screen for a variety of malignant tumors.
It has been known for some time that specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in exhaled breath are evidence of health problems. There are various methods to measure these compounds, but existing techniques are costly, slow and require the cancer biomarkers to be concentrated before measurements are taken. But the Haick team reported it has developed an "electronic nose" that can do this without having to pretreat or dehumidify the breath samples. In the years ahead, this means that general practitioners will be able to purchase such a sensor and routinely test their patients for various cancers before they have begun to grow and metastasize.
Haick, who lives in Haifa with his biotech engineer wife and their baby son, comes from an impressive family of academics that includes a doctor, an electronics engineer and a mathematics teacher. "Since I was a small boy, I have been interested in science," he told The Jerusalem Post. "I never wanted to be a physician; I regard the practice of medicine as static. I prefer research, as it produces new technologies to treat patients."
The experimental device has been tested at Haifa's Rambam Medical Center, where they collected a number of patients who had been diagnosed conventionally with certain types of tumors. Their cancer cells were cultured to magnify the odor, and the "electronic nose" was "trained" like a voice-recognition device to identify the VOCs. The device identified the specific tumor in undiagnosed patients with more than 90 percent accuracy, Haick said.
Meanwhile, Haick has found that the device also identifies the presence of kidney disease by sniffing other biomarkers; he published this discovery in the American Chemical Society's journal Nano. Identifying patients, including type II diabetics, with kidney disease when it is just beginning is important, because by the time symptoms occur, it may be too late to save the kidneys and dialysis is very costly. Once the first signs of kidney disease are detected with the "nose," the patient could be treated and change his diet to slow the slide into kidney failure.
His inventions have triggered intense interest around the world, but clinical testing will begin here. "There are very promising results," Haick concluded, "but the path to routine use is still long, so more research and testing are needed."