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Scientist uses nanotechnology to create the impossible

Hossam Haick, a professor at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and an expert in the field of nanotechnology and noninvasive disease diagnostics, began our interview with a story about his eldest son, Fadi, now 13.

When Fadi was a little boy, says Haick, he was afraid of water.

“But one day my wife and I were at the Technion pool,” Haick, 47, continued, “and an older faculty member swimming in the pool — to this day, I don’t know his name — reached out to his arm and Fadi went into the water with him, and that’s how Fadi learned to swim.

Since then, Fadi has become a competitive swimmer, winning numerous awards. Haick said he will always be grateful to the stranger who introduced his son to the water.

And this idea of ​​experimenting and trying new things is symbolic of Haick’s pioneering work.

“When I do research, I jump in the water and then learn to swim,” Haick said.

With a black belt in karate, Haick has an aura of someone who is calm and soft-spoken, but with a steely focus. With his 32-member team – a diverse group of scientists from around the world, including China, India and Russia – he has produced over 42 patents and patent applications, many of which have already been licensed to companies international.

He has won grants, awards, and accolades, including a 2008 listing on MIT Technology Review’s “35 Leading Young Scientists of the World” list.

He likes to imagine the impossible. Two of his most famous inventions are the SniffPhone, whose nanotechnology sensors analyze breath to detect certain types of cancers, and the NaNose, which can detect biomarkers for a variety of medical conditions.

Two of Hossam Haick’s most famous inventions are the SniffPhone, whose nanotechnology sensors analyze breath to detect certain types of cancers, and the NaNose, which can detect biomarkers for a variety of medical conditions. (Courtesy of the Technion Spokesperson’s Office)

Molecular zipper instead of sutures

But before saying more about those inventions, Haick was excited to share the background information on one of his latest inventions.

“I saw the movie ‘The Terminator’ when I was a little boy,” Haick began, launching into his next story – the kind of story he used to read growing up in Nazareth with his four siblings. His family was poor, Haick said, but his parents always brought home books about inventors and leaders for inspiration.

“Six or seven years ago, I saw the film again.” Haick paused. “Do you know the story of the robot? Well, suddenly at 3am, I woke up thinking about the robot and I thought, “Why not do electronic device self-healing?”

“There is nothing called a mistake. If you have a different perspective and a different vision, this can be an opportunity. That’s why I never say to someone, ‘You’re wrong.’ I say, ‘I have a different opinion.’

The next day, I called a postdoc, Dr. Ning Tang, originally from Vietnam but now at the University of Texas at Austin, and said, “I have something crazy for you. He said, “Great”.

Haick said electronic devices cannot be repaired and cannot touch skin or blood. Tang has created a polymer that can do all of this.

Made from sulfur and nitrogen and arranged like a molecular zipper, the device can bind a wound, eliminating the need for sutures. It lessens the infection. It’s also a smart device, connected to a doctor’s computer.

“I’m very excited about replacing the sutures,” Haick said. “It’s incredible.”

On his laptop, he showed me a movie of an electronic device floating in salt water. A scientist cut the device in half, then pressed the two pieces together. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, the pieces fit back together. Not only that, the scientist was able to stretch the device like taffy.

“He’ll keep stretching it,” Haick said, smiling at me. “Carefree.”

Tattoo Health Tracker

Another of Haick’s inventions is a wearable health-tracking device that can be applied as a temporary tattoo, “like the one I put on my kids,” he said.

People place the device on the skin and apply a dab of water. They then remove the adhesive backing and the device remains able to bend and stretch while converting motion and body heat into electrical energy.

“There are electrodes and microneedles in the device, but they’re a hair’s breadth,” Haick said. “You don’t feel them. These are the sensors that monitor people’s biomarkers such as glucose, salt, latent tuberculosis, and even to check for dehydration.

This non-invasive device could transmit this data to the user and the doctor.

“Did you know that between 20 and 40% of all medical diagnoses are incorrect?” Haick asked. “And 15% of all surgeries are done for the wrong reason. This is due to the delay in diagnosis. We seek to detect diseases while we are still healthy. The survival rate will increase.

Haick points out that nowadays a doctor can see 40 to 70 patients a day. “But if we have such a system, the doctor could see 70,000 patients just by having access to the data.”

“So if you had a crystal ball, will this device be commonplace in the future?”

“Yes,” he said without thinking twice. “Most people will wear one.”

A portable laboratory

“What is your goal for the next few years?” I asked.

“Do you know what a spectrometer is? »

I shook my head.

He showed me a picture of the machine. “It’s over a meter by one meter, weighs around 200 kilograms and costs half a million dollars,” he said. “It’s a very complicated laboratory. You take the blood or urine sample to him and he separates the mixtures into elements. You can’t bring it into the field.

Then he drew curvy lines and squares on a piece of paper and held it up for me to see.

“This invention is like origami,” he explained. “We’ve developed something that will do everything the spectrometer does but in the size of a credit card. It has 150 layers – of course it depends on how you fold it – and it will cost $20 to produce. The secret is what we put in the ink and how we do the folding. We write it down on a sheet of paper.

“It’s crazy!” I said.

“It’s really crazy,” he said. “We need to think of a name for this device – we are now calling it a portable lab. In the future, you can stick this device on a building to detect a specific compound. For example, there is a compound xylene. above a certain threshold, it can cause cancers. It is very difficult to collect and examine. But this device will be able to do it. In agriculture, you could detect infections in trees to monitor the mushrooms or toxicity.

The portable lab “has enormous potential”, he said, adding that he is sure he will find partners to develop it.

As he was almost done explaining this project, he went off on another of his team’s projects.

“There are 600 trillion cells in the human body and we study how they communicate with each other,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder and another on her hip.

“From one part of the body to another, cells have a chemical language that they use. We are studying this. If we can spy on that language, we can intervene in that communication and intervene with the processing.

Gut feelings

In addition to his research in nanotechnology, Haick is now dean of undergraduate students at the Technion.

He said he had recently welcomed applicants whose academic grades “were not high but who had other qualities”.

“I find the point of light and I believe in them,” he said.

“Is this scientific?” I asked.

“I trust my instincts,” he said. “One in 100 I’m wrong, which proves me right 90% of the time. I like to take risks.”

Haick said a college student recently asked him how he was doing in life. He replied, “I don’t think so much. When I find the opportunity, I don’t think too much about the pitfalls.

He added that he did not believe in mistakes.

“There’s nothing called a mistake,” he said. “If you have a different perspective and a different vision, it can be an opportunity. That’s why I never say to someone, ‘You’re wrong.’ I say, ‘I have a different opinion.’


He and his wife, Rana, a chemist and food engineer, live in Haifa with Fadi and their eight-year-old son, Eass. Although Haick no longer practices karate, he walks six kilometers every morning before work.

He said he shows people what he has done and demonstrates through his own experience. As a Christian Arab Israeli, he does not want to be a role model for only a certain population.

“I try to be a model of excellence as a human being, not as an Arab. I have a humanist concept. I seek excellence. It is the umbrella that defines us all.

How did his childhood and his family’s economic difficulties influence him?

“I remember as a student I always thought, ‘How am I going to survive? ‘” Haick said. “I don’t worry about it anymore. But I can’t forget where I started from. In terms of humanity, I am thinking of those who do not have the means. I always think how I can contribute to people’s health.

Then he stopped. “We have to dream but dream realistically. You need a work plan. The work plan should be realistic in terms of time and cost. There are competitors, and if you don’t catch the train, you’ll miss something.

As an educator, Haick wants to reach as many people as possible. He developed Technion’s first massive open online course (MOOC) in English and Arabic. Since 2014, more than 54,000 people from all over the world have participated in the course.

He said he tries to encourage students to “understand the gaps that currently exist. The more you know about a subject, the better. Filling the void is called invention. It is the idea and the dream.

The scientist should not be isolated in the lab, he said. “It’s much more important to influence the public and the next generation.”

Produced in association with ISRAEL21c.

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