Yehia Ismail, Professor and Director at Centre for Nenoelectronics and Devices at AUC
By Anna Bernsen
When Dr. Yehea Ismail was a child, he dreamed of studying the stars and the planets. He always “did horrible in humanities” so science was the way to go. But when the time came to choose a college major, Ismail’s parents advised him not to study astronomy. “Choose something that gets you paid at the end of the month,” his parents said. So Ismail ended up majoring in engineering at Cairo University.
“I’m still interested in astronomy, but on a hobby level. I like to study the planets, the certain things, not quantum gravity. I think there is a relation between the cosmos and the smallest objects,” Ismail says.
Today, he works with just that: the world on a cellular level. For the past six years Ismail has been developing a biochip that will be able to distinguish between sick and healthy cells in the human body. Eventually, the mass-produced biochips will quickly and cheaply be able to diagnose an array of illnesses, like cancer, for example. When we met with Ismail, who serves as Director of the Center for Nanoelectronics and Devices at the American University in Cairo and Zewail City of Science and Technology, he had just delivered a presentation on his biochips for students, colleagues and several media outlets. To explain the biochips for someone not sufficiently versed in the world of nanotechnology, Ismail compares his biochips to dogs.
“It’s like teaching a dog a new trick. If we can teach the standard electronics to do medical functions, without adding any other technology to the chip, then we can benefit from the mass production capabilities of established electronics foundries. That’s our objective,” Ismail says.
For a person on the brink of revolutionizing the way illnesses are diagnosed, Ismail is very calm and collected. And in his soft tone and the way he casually speaks of his path to become one of the leading Egyptian scientists, we get the impression that he has always been this serene.
After obtaining a master’s degree from Cairo University, Ismail moved to New York where, sponsored by IBM, he began specializing in biochips at the University of Rochester.
“I later joined IBM during my Ph.D. studies. I worked there as an intern, but during the first year I saw some serious problems with a product, which they didn’t expect to be pointed out to them by an intern. So IBM ended up funding my research, and when they later offered me a job I received the highest salary ever for someone who had just gotten his Ph.D.,” Ismail says.
Even though the money was good, Ismail left to Chicago to work at Northwestern University. Between 2008 and 2011, Ismail travelled regularly back to Cairo to help with Nile University. “Zewail asked me come and help here in Egypt so I travelled between Northwestern and Cairo. I helped some 40 students go to America and Europe to study at some of the best universities,” Ismail says about his time spent at the Zewail City of Science and Technology, a nonprofit, independent learning institution founded by the acclaimed Egyptian scientist Ahmed Zewail in 2000.
“Before 2011, Northwestern let me come to the Middle East frequently, but then the revolution came, and they told me to come back to Northwestern for good. They pressured me to come back, so I had to make a choice.” Ismail decided to live permanently in the US, but as he began settling down, he realized that he had made a mistake.
“No one was happy, because it wasn’t a well-thought-out decision. I was put on the spot to make a decision, so out of pressure I made one. But I never look back. Only forward,” Ismail says. And so after moving back to Egypt for good, Ismail began looking toward a future where people all over the world can be correctly diagnosed by placing a drop of blood on a biochip.
“We’re pretty far along with our research, but there is still work to do. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to produce the chips in a couple of years. But we have to have the proper approvals and so on, and with products related to medicine, it always takes some time,” Ismail says.
The chips, Ismail hopes, will be used everywhere: hospitals, diagnostic labs and even the local pharmacy. “We hope that people will be able to go to a pharmacy, buy a chip, put a blood sample on it, and then it will give you a full picture,” Ismail says. “A lot of people are working on this, so even if we fail, the biochips will still be a part of the future.”