Story of a Fight against Cancer
Professor Mustafa El-Sayed
In 2008, Professor Mustafa El-Sayed was awarded the US National Medal of Science -- America's highest honor in the field of science -- for "his seminal and creative contributions to our understanding of the electronic and optical properties of nano-materials and to their applications in nano- catalysis and nano-medicine, for his humanitarian efforts of exchange among countries and for his role in developing the scientific leadership of tomorrow."
He was the first Arab and Egyptian scientist to gain the distinction.
Early life and Education:
Born in 1933 in Zefta in the Gharbiya governorate, the youngest child of a mathematics teacher, El-Sayed received his primary and secondary education in the town in which he was born. One of seven siblings whose parents died when he was just 10 years old, El-Sayed was raised by his older brother Mohamed and his wife.
"My brother Mohamed was a great man, and his great love for me gives me serenity and trust in myself. Moreover, I was surrounded by the love of my family. However, my parents' deaths led me to think at that young age of life and death. I lived for many years believing that they would come back to me, because I thought they could not just have gone like that, leaving me alone. However, being an orphan made me stronger."
He earned his B.Sc from Ain Shams University faculty of Science in 1953.
In 1954, El-Sayed travelled to the US and successfully passed four sets of exams in order to be deemed equivalent to other students.
“I remember that my professors told me that I was the first foreign student to succeed in these exams, as most had to study extra courses before passing. This was in large part due to the teaching I received from my professors in Egypt," El-Sayed says.
He spent four years as a fellow at Florida University, during which time he married.
"At that time there were not many Arab or Muslim women in Florida to choose from, and my wife was an American from a conservative family," he explains.
El-Sayed returned to the US, where he worked in some of the most prestigious American universities, including Yale, Harvard, the University of California and the University of Georgia.
"Each university offered me the best facilities in terms of labs, finance and salaries. Meanwhile, we had five children."
Today, El-Sayed's children Laila and Tarek work in the field of industrial chemistry and engineering, while Dorya works in business and administration, Ivan is a doctor, and Gamal tragically died when he was just 20 years old.
"I was busy with my research, and my wife provided me with everything I needed to help me concentrate on my work. She shouldered the task of raising the children. Though she had a higher certificate, she preferred not to work in order to look after me and the children," El-Sayed says.
A Struggle with Cancer
El-Sayed's marriage lasted for almost half a century, his wife dying some four years ago from cancer after struggling with the disease for five years. During this time El-Sayed also suffered greatly, the grief over the loss of his wife motivating him to work in cancer research.
"Her cancer was not diagnosed early, and when we first discovered it the physicians told her that she had been suffering from it for two years and had another five years to live. I had worked in nano-technology since graduation, but it was only after the death of my beloved wife that I started to think seriously of using it in treating cancer," he says sadly.
According to El-Sayed, he managed to do so with the help of a team of 70 researchers, and after two years of hard work the team developed an effective treatment for skin cancer using "gold nanorods". Though so far only tested on animals and some human cells, the treatment can kill cancer cells that appear under the microscope as light spots, leaving healthy cells unharmed.
"My task as a researcher ended after testing the treatment on animals. The next step is to test the treatment on humans," El Sayed says.
His son Ivan, a professor of tumour surgery at the University of California, took part in initial efforts to apply the new treatment to cancerous cells in humans, and El-Sayed is watching closely.
The treatment will not normally be available for at least seven years after the US Food and Drug Administration, the only authority issuing licenses for the use of new medicines or treatments on humans in the US, approves it.
He believes that spending money on scientific research is an investment in the future, because it will improve social and economic conditions in the long run. He adds that US President Barrack Obama has decreased most national expenses in the US following the financial crisis, apart from that for scientific research. This he has increased, believing that scientific research will be key to weathering the crisis.
He was nominated the Egyptian scientist Ahmed Zewail for the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. However, he himself, he says, has never thought about being nominated for or of receiving the prize.
"I am working hard for human beings and not for a Nobel Prize, which should be given to those that discover the genetic causes of cancer," he says.
His main aim today is to continue developing treatments for cancer, especially for the poor who cannot afford expensive treatments. His new cancer treatment is potentially cheap, he says, since one gram of gold could treat 1,000 patients, even if the cost of equipment, physicians and nursing will increase the expense.
He also says that cancer has existed since the era of the Pharaohs and that it is due to genetic causes.
"Now I am working on new research to enter the cancer cell itself in order to discover its secrets, particularly what makes a healthy cell become cancerous. Finding out exactly what goes on in infected cells should help us to find a way to stop the occurrence of disease from the very beginning," he says.
Asked what lies at the root of his own success, this renowned scientist attributes what he has accomplished to the blessings of God and to working over 15 hours daily throughout his career.
Awards and Accomplishments
1. El-Sayed is Julius Brown Chair and Regents Professor and Director of the Laser Dynamics Laboratory at Georgia University in Atlanta in the US.
2. He is also well known for the spectroscopy law named after him and he has been nominated for a Nobel Prize.
3. The 2002 Irving Langmuir Award in Chemical Physics from the American Chemical Society
4. The 1990 King Faisal International Prize in Sciences.
5. He was elected a member of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1980 for his work on applying laser spectroscopic techniques to the study of properties and behavior on the nano-scale,
6. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
7. A member of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Third World Academy of Science.
8. Was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Physical Chemistry for 25 years (1980-2005) and served as US editor of the International Review in Physical Chemistry.
9. He has some 500 publications in major scientific journals to his name.
10. Has supervised over 70 PhD students and 35 postdoctoral fellows, many of whom now hold prestigious posts in the scientific community.
By Heba Hossam