For Israeli researcher, a cancer-sniffing electronic nose is just another puzzle

Hossam Haick: I’m still practicing my hobby and I’m also making science which is benefiting the world.As a child growing up in the mixed Jewish-Arab Israeli city of Nazareth, Hossam Haick loved to do puzzles. “One puzzle leads to a …

Hossam Haick: I’m still practicing my hobby and I’m also making science which is benefiting the world.As a child growing up in the mixed Jewish-Arab Israeli city of Nazareth, Hossam Haick loved to do puzzles.

“One puzzle leads to a solution, but often the solution leads to another puzzle,” explains the 31-year-old faculty member of the Technion School of Chemical Engineering.

“In science, as in childhood, there are a lot of puzzles. Studying for my bachelor’s degree at Ben-Gurion University, I began to think more about puzzles in science and found that it attracted me,” he adds, explaining how he entered into a career of science.

That decision – derived from a childhood love of puzzles – could one day result in a novel cancer treatment breakthrough. Haick was recently awarded the Marie Curie Action excellence grant totalling $2.2 million from the European Union (EU) for the development of an artificial olfactory system (an electronic nose) that can sniff out cancer. The grant is part of EU efforts to strengthen and encourage promising, young scientists.

“I’m really please to have received the grant -it’s very prestigious. We submitted a proposal back in January, and only a couple of weeks ago received message of winning the grant,” Haick told ISRAEL21c.

“There’s a great deal of satisfaction, but also there’s a challenge ahead of continuing in the right direction and develop our ideas for the project in the most effective manner.”

Haick’s proposal consisted of a program to develop an electronic device based on nanometer-sized sensors which would be an artificial olfactory system that can detect cancer from the breath of the patient.

“You simply exhale on the instrument, and it will tell if the person is healthy or has cancer. It can also distinguish between types of cancer, and most importantly, at which stage the cancer has developed,” says Haick, adding that in its initial stage, the electronic nose is intended to sniff out and diagnose lung cancer which afflicts millions of Americans.

“In our research, we already showed that, using nanosensors, it is possible to differentiate between a healthy human being and one with cancer. The challenge for us and for the project is to differentiate between the different stages of the disease. But with the support of the grant, we hope to overcome that challenge.

According to Haick, the diagnosis can be carried out at a very early stage even before a tumor has formed. Thus, treatment will be immediate and will destroy the disease at its inception.

‘Most imaging techniques are limited in their detection ability by the size of the tumor. If it’s less than a specific size, then it won’t be detected. In our technology, we can detect cancer from the breath even at the very early stages before the tumor’s even formed. This can increase the survival rate by four or five times. It’s very significant,” says Haick.

No stranger to the technology surrounding electronic noses, Haick, who completed his Ph.D. at the Technion, recently spent two years as a senior lecturer following his post-doctorate at Caltech (California Institute of Technology). His area of research and work at Caltech were in electronic instruments based on nanomaterials and electronic noses.

“The group that I worked with developed electronic noses and devices for the NASA space shuttle, so I received some good training” says Haick. The fact that he came from Israel was considered a plus by his colleagues at Caltech.

“Israeli science is very developed and well known. From the experience I’ve had, we’re respected within the science community throughout the world.”

Haick will be using that perceived respect to recruit a dozen researchers from abroad and Israel to join his team. With the grant that he received, plus the additional funds he received from the Technion through the Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute, he is setting up a laboratory that will include equipment valued at more than $1 million and stocking it with some of the best scientists he can find.

“Before I received the grant, I had already set up my own lab on campus through the Russell Berrie Foundations and supported by the Technion. But now with the grant, I can develop the lab more, get more essential equipment and it will enable me to hire researchers – both from Israel and from outside the country. One of the clauses in the grant is to form an ‘excellence team’ consisting of researchers not only from Israel but also from the European Commission,” he explains.

At the end of the four-year project, Haick is hopeful that his team will reach their goal of developing a cancer-sniffing device that can be commercialized.

Prof. Moshe Eizenberg, the executive vice president for research at the Technion congratulated Haick on receiving the grant, one of 29 awarded by the EU this year.

“This is an extremely significant achievement and I am convinced that the research that Haick will lead at the Technion will be on the highest scientific level and will achieve practical results,” he said.

The Nazareth-born researcher lives in Haifa near the Technion with his wife, a chemist with a degree in food and biotechnological engineering who works with the Israeli Ministry of Health. During last summer’s war in the North, the couple decided to stay in their apartment and not leave the city like some other residents.

“During the war it wasn’t easy. And although the political situation wasn’t promising, I continued to go to the Technion every day and work on science. We didn’t leave the city, or our home.”

Haick looks back at his puzzle-filled childhood with a mixture of wonderment and fulfillment that it has led to such recognition in the science world.

“I gradually entered that loop of puzzle-solution, puzzle-solution and I’ve never gotten out. So, I’m still practicing my hobby and I’m also making science which is benefiting the world.”