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An Egyptian’s Quest to Customize Cancer Research

Scientists often have difficulty talking about their work clearly. They fall prey to their own jargon and struggle to relate to non-experts. But Lobna Mourad, a bright and eager Ph.D. student at the American University in Cairo, explains her research in plain language and with enthusiasm.

In fact, she recently earned an award for it.

In March she won her university’s Three Minute Thesis competition where Ph.D. students are asked to explain their research and its importance to a panel of judges in less than three minutes. This “elevator pitch” style competition was originally developed by the University of Queensland in 2008, but has branched out to 18 different countries at 170 universities.

She won by efficiently explaining how she hopes to tackle rising rates of liver cancer in Egypt—and crucially, her ability to hold the room’s attention while doing so.

The concept of personalized medicine—where drugs, diagnosis and treatments are tailored to specific groups of people—is on the rise in the West. But European and American pharmaceutical companies may not be investing in these endeavors specifically for Arab populations. Efforts like Mourad’s mark an important step in bringing the latest emphasis in medical research to the Arab region.

“She is an excellent presenter,” explains Mourad’s Ph.D. supervisor, Eman El-Ahwany. “She knows how to clearly present her data and get others to understand the importance of her work.”

She doesn’t retreat into complexities to look intelligent. She also frequently checks to make sure her audience is following what she’s saying, but without being patronizing. The people she talks to believe she genuinely wants them to understand her work.

“I’ve always loved science and biology,” she says. “I’ve always loved studying cancer. It’s such a clever disease—how it can manipulate all the mechanisms of the body in its favor.”

She’s trying to find a way to diagnose liver cancer without surgery. At the moment, to find out if a patient has the disease, tumor samples from the liver normally need to be sent to the lab. Not only does this involve some minor surgery, but it also means the tumor has to grow to a size big enough for a sample to be taken.

“Usually it’s diagnosed when it’s almost too late. It’s a hassle, a pain and puts the patient at risk,” she explains. “My idea? Why not test for it before a tumor grows big enough for a biopsy.”

Mourad became interested in liver cancer because rates of the disease in Egypt are worryingly high. The World Health Organization estimates that it kills over 16,000 Egyptians every year, ranking the country 4th in the world for the highest rates of liver cancer.

Many of these cases are caused by high rates of hepatitis C in Egypt. Henk Bekedam, the representative of the World Health Organization in Cairo, says that just about every family in Egypt is touched by hepatitis. Official statistics say at least one in 10 Egyptians between the ages of 15 and 59 are infected with the virus.

“I really wanted to do something related to Egypt because we have one of the highest hepatitis C rates in the world and the infection progresses into cancer in a lot of cases,” she says. “When I learned about this problem I knew it was something to get involved with.”

Unlike some other students at the doctoral level, Mourad has a life outside the lab, says El-Ahwany. “Ph.D. students often forget about anything else in their life but the research,” she says, “but Lobna is social. She is the coach for Zumba classes at AUC and she is a teaching assistant.”

The Egyptian strain of the hepatitis C virus isn’t normally found elsewhere in the world, which makes this issue somewhat of an Egyptian phenomenon.

“That’s why I wanted to focus on Egyptian patients who got liver cancer as a result of the infection,” she says. “That is what makes my study distinctive.”

El-Ahwany agrees that it’s important to specifically study Egyptians. Cancer, like many other diseases, are greatly impacted by a population’s genetic makeup. The majority of the world’s medical research is conducted in the West, which means that any drugs resulting from those trials are tailored for European and American genotypes.

This doesn’t meant the drugs are ineffective for populations in other parts of the world, like the Middle East, but it does mean they might not be as successful as they could be.

“In Egypt we have our own genotype and so it’s important for the Egyptian population to find a novel diagnostic tool,” El-Ahwany says.

In every human cell there are molecules called microRNAs, which are essentially very small bits of genetic material used to turn certain genes on or off. Researchers have discovered these molecules are expressed differently in cancer patients compared to normal individuals—their levels are either higher or lower depending on the specific microRNA.

Mourad is conducting tests to measure the levels of microRNAs in liver cancer patients. She needs to gauge the concentration of microRNAs that may indicate the presence of liver cancer. This would allow her to create a blood test to screen for the cancer at early stages of the disease.

“If you’re testing for diabetes, we have a threshold of glucose above which a person is deemed to have diabetes,” she explains. “This is what I want to achieve with liver cancer.” Reaching that goal may take some time because Mourad is still entrenched in early step-by-step lab experiments. “It’s all about generating data and analyzing it at the moment,” she says.


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