Designation: Faculty Member of School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at University of Tehran, Iran
Work: Translating the Behavior of Healthy and Cancerous Cells into the Electronic Field (New Methods in Diagnosis of Cancer)
Field of the Prize: Nano Electronic Science and Technology
In the Right Place at the Right Time
Mohammad Abdolahad; an Intimate Profile
A modern airliner has about 10 thousand sensors constantly recording information that informs pilots about the plane’s performance. But more importantly, the huge amount of data makes it possible to forecast mechanical problems that be easily corrected if the plane is not high in the sky. The system has an extraordinary performance: aviation accidents are extremely rare, with the chance of a passenger being killed on a flight at about eight million-to-one.
Our bodies are equipped with analogous information systems that could alert about any forthcoming disease. However, reading this critical information needs to have comprehensive access to the human body at the cellular or molecular levels, which unfortunately we haven’t. But what about a certain disease, the deadliest one: cancer. This is the idea that S. Mohajerzade, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Tehran, talked about with Mohammad Abdolahad when he was a Ph.D. student.
A Nice Short Chat
Abdolahad, now an associate professor of electrical engineering also at the University of Tehran, recalls “One day, he happened to talk to me about a professor who has come from the US and says a lot of interesting things about cancerous cells.” At the time, as a newcomer Ph.D. student in electrical engineering, he had nothing to do with cancer and was planning to do his thesis in the field of photonic. But that short chat with Mohajerzadeh dramatically changed his mind later.
Soon after early studies, Abdolahad found the biological science of cancer with the translation of electronics as a really amazing and interesting field of research. When he decided to start his thesis in the field under the supervision of Mohajerzadeh, it turned out that he was going to have a hard time making any progress, without a strong background in biological science. Therefore, in addition to his routine studies in electrical engineering, he began to study medical science, particularly about cancer, pathology, cell’s biochemical behavior and also its translation into electronics. “Mohajerzadeh prepared all the initial facilities and even asked one of the professors in biology (M. Habibi Rezaei) to teach us biotechnology,” Abdolahad says.
During the period that took two years, he published some papers and invented devices in the field of the electrical behavior of cancerous and healthy cells which some of them were unprecedented. After receiving Ph.D., because of these remarkable achievements, the University of Tehran gave Abdolahad a great opportunity to follow his research in an allocated lab. In the meantime, the Council of Microelectronic Technology of Vice-Presidency of Science and Technology supported him through a research fund.
Under Abdolahad coordination, a group of experts of different disciplines gathered at Nano-Bio Electronic Devices Lab, in order to research on diagnostic systems, methods, and tools for cancer. “When our research got to start, depends on our needs, we should use various expertise,” he says. Coming years was a period of progress and achievement for Abdolahad and his research group, including the development of a new microelectronic biochip, called Metas-Chip that can precisely identify the presence of micro-metastasis in biopsy samples.
One of the key influences on his career was his continuous connections with hospitals and biological research centers. “Thanks to my colleagues at Tehran University of Medical Sciences and MAHAK hospital, when the development process of Metas-Chip was done, we had the chance to investigate the device’s performance under clinical trials,” he says.
Publishing the paper about Metas-Cip in Nature Communications was a 10 months challenge that after many go and forth between referees and research groups, came to an end in December 2017. But for Abdolahad, it was not the end of the story. “By publishing the paper, we introduced the technology but producing a well-designed and user-friendly product was another major step,” he says. So he took the step, and in coalition with a group of industrial designers turned the device to an integrated final product.
Abdolahad was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1982. During recent years, he achieved much success including filing more than 20 US patents and publishing more than 50 papers in prominent journals, mostly in the field of cancer detection by nanoelectronic devices. He won the “Best Young Inventor” medal of WIPO in 2016 based on his research and developed systems on the technology of cancer diagnosis. He received the “Best Young Scientist from Iran Academy of Science”. Since 2016, he is an adjunct professor at Tehran University of Medical Sciences. He is undergoing to develop the “electrotechnical oncosurgery” as a new joint Fellowship-Postdoc between surgery and electrical engineering disciplines.
Abdolahad describes his field of research as “fighting cancer with the assist of electronics in terms of diagnostics, from science to product.” In fact, he is working at the intersection of diverse scientific disciplines, a key point where breakthroughs in science often happen. At age 37, it seems he is in the right place at the right time. He is thinking about another ambitious goal, but he says “let me not to say. It is confidential.” However, he believes “finding the electrical signature of cancer initiation”, and “how to electrically control the cancer function to prevent its destructive effects on the body” are two of the most important questions in his field of research that their answers may lead to breakthroughs.
He describes himself as “a person with plenty of questions, someone whose knowledge is always lower than what is needed to tackle his unsolved problems but wants to know more and more”. He believes, he may be able to help humans for a better life, if he reduces his ignorance and increases his experience. “I believe in an honest life in which you want to help human beings, regardless of their religion or race. I want to be a real Muslim.” Out of his lab, when he is not doing research, he prefers to spend time with his family and play with his babies.
When it’s not too late
Recent developments in cancer diagnosis biosensors brought the technology on the verge of commercialization
Sometimes you would know the smell of your close relatives, even blindfolded. This is not about the smells of their perfumes or the detergents they use for laundry. You can vividly just recognize the smells of themselves. The odor of our bodies is made of thousands of organic compounds. Just like the fingerprint, the complex mixture of molecules in the odor-print is unique and could reveal a lot of things about us, including age, genetics, lifestyle, maybe hometown or job, or even our physical health status and its underlying metabolic processes.
This is not a secret revealed by modern science. In the traditional medicine of ancient Greek and Chinese, using a patient’s scent was a common way to make diagnoses. Even modern medical research confirms that the smell of skin, breath or bodily fluids can suggest if someone is ill. For example, the exhale of diabetic patients sometimes smells like rotten apples. Using olfaction as a noninvasive mean of diagnosis seems to be a very interesting idea, but not every physician has a good sense of smell and their nose couldn’t be a reliable precise tool. However, in a more realistic scenario, our bodies are full of biomarkers which can provide critical data about our health status, if we have the right tools for reading some of them. This is why researchers have been trying for decades to build biosensors that could diagnose illness in a quick, cheap, noninvasive and reliable way.
The history of biosensors dates back to more than a century ago, when Max Cremer, a German physiologist (1865-1935), invented the glass electrode in 1906. After the introduction of the concept of pH (hydrogen ion concentration) in 1909 and an electrode for pH measurements in 1922, researchers tried to demonstrate the capabilities of the early form of biosensors. However, it was only in 1956 that the first true biosensor was developed by Leland C.Clark, American biochemist (1918-2005). He is known as the “father of biosensor” and his invention of an electrode for the detection of glucose eventually led to the development of the first commercial biosensors in 1975.
Since then, the field of biosensors has experienced remarkable progress and the field is now a multidisciplinary area of research that any achievement in it needs a coalition of scientists who know how to bridge the foundations of basic sciences with electronics, micro-electro-mechanics, nanotechnology, and medicine. In recent years, such a group of elite researchers is gathered in Nano-Bio Electronic Devices Lab at the University of Tehran. Within the short time of starting this initiative, Mohammad Abdolahad, coordinator of the lab and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering department, and his colleagues introduced several new miniaturized diagnostic systems. Abdolahad, one of the laureates of the 2019 Mustafa Prize from Islamic countries, and his team achieved much success, including filing more than 20 US patents and publishing more than 50 papers in prominent journals. In a 2017 paper published in Nature Communications, Abdolahad introduced a new microelectronic biochip, called Metas-Chip that can precisely identify the presence of micro-metastasis in biopsy samples.
One of the biggest promises of biosensors is that they can diagnose diseases when conventional tests cannot. And, when it comes to early diagnosis, there is no more critical disease than cancer. Therefore much of research in the field of the biosensor is aimed to find new methods and design new devices for cancer diagnosis. Identifying metastatic cancer cells in a sample resected from the secondary tissue of the patients by pathological methods is the most important step in cancer staging and therapeutic regimes.
But these methods are designed to track the presence of abnormally aggressive cells in the samples that are prepared from removed tissues by certain procedures. This means with these pathological methods, there is always a chance to miss the target. “Although cancer cells are detectable in some cases, they might be rare or only exist in regions of the removed sample that are not investigated by the pathologist, and preventing missing any aggressive cancer cells is time-consuming and expensive,” Abdolahad says.
It is said that cancer is not just one disease. In fact, there are more than 200 types of cancer and all of them caused by the uncontrollable growth of cells in the body. Deaths from cancer usually caused by secondary tumors which are the consequence of cancer cell proliferation to other parts of the body in a process known as metastasis. “Metastasis happens when cancer cells acquire a migratory to invasive phenotype, initiated from groupings of cells that appear to break off from primary tumors,” Abdolahad says.
In spite of much progress in understanding the nature of cancer, the devastating effects of it on patients has remained almost unchanged for many years. In fact, the overall death rates of all types of cancers in the 2000s were about the same as in the 1950s. On the other hand, the golden rule in the fight against cancer is also still the same: half of the battle is won based on early detection. However, detecting the early stages of cancer, long before physical symptoms occur, can be very difficult. The approach that Abdolahad introduced in the paper, makes it possible to capture the metastatic cells with a simple, fast, and chemistry-free method in small biopsy samples, which will improve the diagnostic impact of existing pathological methods before surgery or treatments.
Biosensor technology is an evolving field and more efficient, sensitive and reliable devices are being developed all the time. Yet very few of them make it to clinical trials for cancer diagnosis. However, the cooperation between Abdolahad’s research group and Tehran University of Medical Sciences made it possible to investigate Metas-Chip under clinical trials. And, the device, filed US patent, demonstrated its remarkable capabilities. “Metas-Chip identified the metastasis in more than 70 breast cancer patients, in less than 5 hours. Moreover, it detected the metastasis in lymph nodes of nine patients who were missed by conventional pathological procedures,” Abdolahad says. In the following, further tests on the missed samples confirmed the validity of the chip’s diagnosis.
High levels of investment into translational research worldwide in recent years, especially, for healthcare applications, paved the way for biosensor technologies to develop faster. This can lead to a coalition between industry and academia to provide commercially viable products. Achieving the goal needs engineering and physical scientists that have a better understanding of biology, and biochemists and biologists that have a greater awareness of the capabilities of various technologies. The alliance of experts of different disciplines, like one formed by the efforts of Abdolahad and his colleagues at the University of Tehran, is a very promising situation that will lead to the commercialization of advanced and novel products.