Israeli Arab professor in the vanguard of ‘sniffing’ out diseases
By David E. Kaplan
We’ve all heard expressions “a nose for detective work” or “follow your nose” implying some instinctive investigative characteristic of one’s nostrils. However one Israeli scientist looked beyond the abstract metaphor and discovered a concrete truth:
‘The nose knows best!’
Prof. Hossam Haick, an Israeli-Arab scientist and engineer of the Wolfson Faculty of Chemical Engineering at the Technion in Haifa – Israel Institute of Technology, was the recipient in November 2018 of the EU Innovation Award for his Breath Test Device that detects diseases.
The award was for his invention of the SNIFFPHONE, a device that uses nanotechnology sensors to analyze particles on the breath and is able to pinpoint to exact diseases, like certain kinds of cancer, pulmonary and even the early stages of neurodegenerative diseases.
The SNIFFPHONE includes the NaNose, developed in 2014 by Haick in collaboration with Professor Nir Peled of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine. It is a microchip incorporated into a breathalyzer-like device, capable of diagnosing various diseases. The device uses the presence of specific volatile organic compounds, which are unique fingerprints for various forms of diseases.
A Nosy Parker
“We look for what are called volatile organic compounds, or biomarkers, on the breath. These biomarkers are chemical compounds that are imitated from the source of the disease and, as a result, are diffused within the bloodstream. Of course, the bloodstream is in contact with the skin and the lungs, which is why our test is able to detect them,” Haick in 2015 told NoCamels.com, a leading news website covering breakthrough innovation from Israel based at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC).
The SNIFFPHONE and NaNose are among a long list of achievements for the award-winning scientist. He holds dozens of patents and made it into a number of notable lists, including the “World’s 35 leading young scientists” by the MIT Technology Review for his research in non-invasive disease detection methods, and a list of 100 most influential inventors by several international agencies between 2015-2018.
With a ‘nose’ to eyeing out a sure bet, the European Commission previously awarded Prof. Haik, $6.8 million for further development of the NaNose.
Haik has been the recipient of an array of prizes and medals, including Knight in Order of the Academic Palms by the French Government, the Humboldt Award, the Bill and Melinda Gates Prize and the Herschel Ritz Innovation Award.
A Star Is Born
Born in 1975 into an Arab Christian family in Nazareth, Haick graduated from the city’s Catholic school St. Joseph Seminary and High School. He began his university studies at Ben Gurion University, where he received his B.Sc. in chemical engineering in 1998 on route to a Full Professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute at the Technion where he received his PH.D. in 2002.
Haick, who was interested in science as a young boy, hails from a family of academics that includes a doctor, an electronics engineer and a mathematics teacher.
At the age of 33, 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.
“I never wanted to be a physician,” he recalled. “I regard the practice of medicine as static. I prefer research, as it produces new technologies to treat patients.”
And that is exactly what he has achieved.
The international SniffPhone consortium that he heads, integrates a breath analysis system into smartphones so that the data can be uploaded to a “cloud” in cyberspace for analysis by qualified medical personnel.
Seeing The Light
Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus and a centre of Christian pilgrimage is where Prof. Haick and his family live and from where his genius is impacting the world.
Haick took a close look at a 2,400-year-old medical hypothesis – that various diseases carry “chemical seals” identifiable in breath samples – and believed that exhaled breath would be an excellent raw material for diagnosis. A huge plus was that it did not require any invasive or unpleasant tests and hence posed no danger.
He used special sensors combined in his “Nano-Electric Nose” to study 1,404 patients, reaching a diagnostic accuracy rate of 86 % of 17 chronic diseases that have no connection to each other. Those included: cancer of the colon, lung, prostate, head and neck, ovaries, stomach and bladder; Parkinson’s disease; Crohn’s disease; ulcerative colitis; irritable bowel syndrome; multiple sclerosis; pulmonary hypertension; pre-eclampsia and chronic kidney disease.
“Each of the sensors responds to a wide range of breath components,” he explains, “And the integration of information provides detailed data on the signature unique disease characteristics. Some of the sensors are made of layers of nanometric gold particles, while others have a network of nanometric carbon tubes coated with an organic layer for sensing and identification.”
“Our system has made the discovery and classification of various diseases with exactitude averaging 86 percent. So this is a new direction and ensures the diagnosis and classification of diseases at low cost, low power consumption, miniaturization, comfort and the possibility to repeat the test easily.”
New Horizons in Healthcare
This high-accuracy, low-cost, non-invasive and easy to use device for early diagnosis integrates micro- and nano-technologies to create an autonomous system, connects to smart devices that can analyze disease markers from exhaled breath.
The breath sample is tested via a miniaturized array of highly sensitive nano-sensors and processed by a microfluidic lab-on-a-chip. The electrical signals are transferred via the smart device to a server. Statistical pattern recognition is applied to the received data and a clinical report including the screening results is sent back to the attending medical professional. SniffPhone represents a new concept in healthcare.
Haick says his success as an Arab citizen of Israel proves that education knows no boundaries and is key to improving his community’s advancement. Towards this end, he teaches a popular online course in his spare time to thousands of students across the Arab world from his lab at Israel’s oldest university, the Technion, which was established in 1912 during the Ottoman Empire.
“He is an extraordinary talent,” said Peretz Lavie, the president of the Technion. “He serves as a role model to youth in the Arab sector, that if they invest in education they can go far.”
Through his online course in nanotechnology — one of the first ever to be taught in Arabic — Haick is reaching out to students from Syria, Yemen, Qatar and beyond. He reveals that over 14,000 students have signed up since its launch in 2013.
He teaches another online class in English, where some 76,000 students from 127 countries have enrolled, among them 900 Iranians.
While Haick sees the venture as a way to build bridges, his affiliation with an Israeli institution did deter some students who had enrolled and later cancelled, citing the Israeli connection as a reason.
“Some people told me to remove this certificate from my resume. They said that I might face some problems,” said Zyad Shehata, an Egyptian student who completed the course.
“I have no interest in whether it is an Israeli university or not; I’m very proud of Professor Haick and I see him as a leader.”
And leader he is from medical science to bridging divides.