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Engineering Nanotechnology and Biomarkers for Big Breakthroughs

Professor Hossam Haick is utilizing cutting-edge nanotechnology-based sensors and biomarkers to engineer artificial devices that imitate the functions of the nose, skin and tongue for early disease detection and the solving of environmental issues.

Prof. Hossam Haick is an expert in the field of nanotechnology and non-invasive disease diagnosis. His studies include the research and development of nano-array devices for screening, diagnosis and monitoring of disease, nanomaterial-based chemical (flexible) sensors, electronic skin, breath analysis, volatile biomarkers, and cell-to-cell communication. Prof. Haick has received more than 80 prizes and recognitions worldwide for his works, including the Knight of the Order of Academic Palms (conferred by the French Government), the Humboldt Senior Research Award, the EU’s Electronic Components & Systems (ECS) Innovation Award, the Changjiang Award, the Michael Bruno Award for Scientists of Truly Exceptional, and others. He was also included in more than 40 important internatiopnal ranking lists, such as the of the world’s 35 leading young scientists under 35 by MIT Magazine (2008), and top-100 innovators in the world (2015-2018) by various international organizations.

Prof. Hossam Haick. “Do something you are passionate about.”

Prof. Haick began on his educational journey at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, where he was awarded BSc, MSc, and PhD degrees in Chemical Engineering. To gain more experience, he completed two postdoctoral fellowships: one at the Weizmann Institute of Science and another at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). At Caltech he investigated the advancement of nanomaterial-based sensors for sickness identification, which formed the groundwork for his later exploration in the domain of nanotechnology. In 2006, he returned to the Technion as an Assistant Professor and with diligence, climbed up the ranks to be awarded a Full Professor in 2011. Today, he is a a known worldwide expert in the field of nanomaterial-based sensor development for disease diagnosis and related applications. In additon to his cutting-edge research at the Technion, he also serves as the Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the institution. “My enthusiasm for educating and mentoring the future generations of scientists and engineers is boundless,” Prof. Haick says, “and I consistently look for innovative ways to motivate and activate my students.”

Prof. Haick is passionate about research and finds the process of answering puzzles and uncovering new knowledge incredibly motivating. “Like many researchers, I am drawn to the challenge of solving complex problems and finding answers to difficult questions. For me, the fact that answering one question often leads to several new ones is not discouraging but rather invigorating. I thrive on the process of exploration and discovery, continually pushing the boundaries of knowledge and opening up new avenues of inquiry.” He testifies that he is always driven to answer every question he encounters. “I see each new puzzle as an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to my field and to society as a whole. My dedication and perseverance in the pursuit of knowledge has led me to make breakthrough discoveries and innovative solutions to real-world problems. The thrill of discovery and the possibility of answering questions that have eluded others is what keeps me motivated and engaged in my work.”

Chemical Engineering aligns Prof. Haick’s passion for science, his desire to make a positive impact on the world, and his interest in interdisciplinary research. “It is a field that constantly presents new challenges and opportunities for innovation, and I am excited to continue exploring its potential through my research.” Indeed, he always had a strong interest in science and mathematics, and chemical engineering is a field that combines both of these subjects in a practical and applied way. “I find the challenge of applying scientific principles to real-world problems incredibly rewarding and motivating,” he says, and adds “I am fascinated by the ways in which Chemical Engineering can be used to address some of the biggest challenges facing our world today, such as climate change and the need for sustainable energy sources.” Chemical Engineers have the potential to make a significant impact by developing new technologies and processes that can reduce environmental harm and promote a more sustainable future. It incorporates elements of chemistry, physics, biology, and other fields. This allows for a broad range of research opportunities and the potential to collaborate with experts in diverse areas of study.

Prof. Haick’s research focuses on the study of disease biomarkers which can be attained without invasiveness and the engineering of cost-effective wearable technologies, accessible to everyone. His research group at the Technion studies volatile biomarkers, cellular interaction reliant on volatile markers, nanomaterial-built chemical sensors, self-healing ‘electronic skin’, breath examination, and more. To gain insight on volatile biomarkers, they incorporate innovative nanotechnology-driven spectroscopic and spectrometric approaches and execute in vivo (within an organism), in vitro (in an artificial environment), and ex vivo (using live tissues in an external environment) experiments. Their early studies showed that cancer has a distinctive volatile molecular signature, just like a molecular ‘fingerprint’, when analyzing exhaled breath. This observation became the major turning point for the introduction of the novel field of volatolomics. Prof. Haick’s research group also designed an intelligent sensor array that could be educated with the help of smart algorithms – just like dogs can be trained to recognize different smells. As a result, they constructed an affordable, lightweight breath analyzer device – similar in size to a flash drive. This nanomaterial-based device identifies a range of diseases, such as different kinds of cancers (including lung, stomach, ovarian, colorectal, breast, head & neck tumors), chronic and acute kidney disorders, liver illness, pulmonary arterial hypertension, tuberculosis, and other diseases. Its pain-free nature, straightforward operation, rapid prognosis, and inexpensive price make it more attractive than currently-available diagnostics.

A demosttration device employing technology engineered at Prof. Haick’s research group that is used to detect deseases biomarker molecules carried in the patient’s breath.

Prof. Haick’s group has also invented a self-healing ‘electronic skin’ technology, resembling the human skin’s capacity to repair itself. It can be utilized for several applications, such as biomedical devices and future robotics, amoung others. The skin analysis done with the help of their wearable gadgets is extremely crucial in healthcare, allowing people to monitor their health constatntly. These novel devices offer a cost-effective and accessible solution, and they have the potential to reinvent the healthcare system as we know it. These gadgets measure volatile biomarkers on the skin, providing signs of different diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and COVID-19. With these biomarkers being tracked in real-time, the devices are able to detect early warnings of diseases which could help patients get proper medical assistance in a timely manner. What’s more, the gadgets are lightweight and inexpensive, making them available to everyone, regardless of their economic standing or place of residence.

A demosttration device employing technology engineered at Prof. Haick’s research group used as an electronic skin based sensor.

Throughout his professional career, Prof. Haick has orchestrated dozens of joint endeavors with individuals or teams of researchers, whether on the national or global level, including hospitals, startup companies and colossal businesses, non-profit institutions, academies, and more. Prof. Haick had set up and drove 5 transnational companies valued at many millions of dollars with over 55 collaborators from all over the world. To ensure successful collaborations, “I make sure to establish four primary components,” he says, “value, scientific/engineering direction, involvement, and infrastructure.”

Prof. Haick’s research group at the Technion Department of Chemical Engineering.

Prof. Haick’s research group, also called The Laboratory for Nanomaterial-Based Devices (LNBD), employs an extensive variety of strategies to uncover disease biomarkers and construct wearable technologies. These strategies comprise of nanotechnology-aided spectroscopic and spectrometric methods that employ nanomaterial-based chemical sensors to detect volatile biomarkers in bodily fluids; in vivo, in vitro, and ex vivo experiments to develop a better comprehension of volatile biomarkers and their relevance to diagnosing and monitoring illness; machine learning and smart algorithms for the generation of smart sensor arrays; and material science and engineering for the formation of self-healing ‘electronic skin’ and other wearable technologies. The research conducted by LNBD necessitates multidisciplinary techniques, combining the abilities of nanotechnology, material science, engineering, chemistry, and biology to fabricate innovative solutions for disease detection and monitoring.

Prof. Haick’s research group currently studies the communication between cells as a method of diagnosing and treating diseases before their symptoms even manifest. “Simply put,” says Hossam, “when cancer cells form, they release certain ‘false’ signals comprised of volatile markers in order to draw in and recruit other healthy cells into their army of malignant cells. These messages act as a reassurance that everything is alright, and there is no need to take any measures of defense against the invading force. Unaware, the healthy cells accept this invitation and unwittingly become part of the growing cancerous mass. In this manner, the cancer cells can expand further by making use of the immune system itself – the ‘police force’ of the body – by causing it to assist the malignant cells, instead of attacking them. During this process, certain chemical messages, belonging to both true and false categories, escape from the body into the blood, and eventually make their way into our skin, breath and other bodily fluids. Currently, we are at an advanced stage of characterizing these messages and accurately deciphering them.” In order to realize this vision, Prof. Haick’s group is designing advanced devices that are able to sense and decode the messages emitted by the cells without actually penetrating the body. “Imagine if we had miniature gadgets that could monitor and decipher the messages without the need of manual interference,” says Hossam, “and then take corrective actions to treat the disease in its initial stages, maybe even five to fifteen years prior to the occurrence of any adverse effects.” Prof. Haick also aim to have these new gadgets available for people of all socio-economic backgrounds, “not only for those who have access to sufficient infrastructure, but even for those who live in extreme poverty and survive on just one dollar a day.”

An illustration of a nanotechnology-based device developed by LNBD that can “smell” dedease biomarkers.

Another groundbreaking technology Prof. Haick’s group is working on is combating environmental and healthcare issues on global scales with will be required in case of bio-warfare, pesticide and nuclear waste. They develop a dynamic approach to monitor the environment/human body a global scale from billions of implanted sensors everywhere and all the time. This mammoth amount of data generated from sensor hardware needs to create effortlessly and autonomously anywhere and anytime both in local and global scale with minimum human intervention.

“Both as a scientist and as the Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the Technion, I always love to discuss ideas that would benefit the young generation of students. I look back very fondly on the days when I was a student myself, balancing the many simultaneous demands. If I could give five pieces of advice for students, I would say:

  • Do something you are passionate about.   
  • Think differently: Try and explore new ideas without bringing your old ideas along for the ride.  
  • Get as much experience as possible: A university is a perfect opportunity to try out new things – new sports or societies, unknown modules or specialisms in your chosen subject, or different roles and responsibilities in a project or team.   
  • Expand your horizons and take every opportunity to expand your consciousness.  
  • Embrace Failure:  By embracing failure, we accept ourselfs and our situation as a part of life.  

For undergraduate students considering further studies in a certain field, Prof. Haick recommends they focus on laying a strong foundation in a specific area of study. This may include taking related courses, conducting research or crafting projects that showcase their skills and interests. Communication and collaboration capabilities should also be cultivated, as they are indispensable for any graduate program. Undergraduates can develop such skills by participating in group projects, getting involved in student organizations, and pursuing internships or other experiences that necessitate working with others. In addition, undergraduates should aim to seek out guidance and advice from those in the same field of study. They can reach out to potential graduate advisors, and go to seminars and conferences to network and stay updated on the latest trends in their discipline.