Chereen’s interview with Dr. Samir Iqbal, the Pakistani-American scientist who developed a device to diagnose cancer rapidly. Iqbal worked on the project with Young-tae Kim, a UTA associate professor in the Bioengineering Department; Muhymin Islam, a STEM doctoral candidate; and engineering students Mohammad Motasim Bellah, Adeel Sajid and Mohammad Raziul Hasan.
Chereen: Please tell me a bit about yourself.
Dr. Iqbal: I was born and raised in Bahrain. My dad was an expat working in research health; he worked as a pharmacist. I was 14 when I moved to Pakistan with my family and settled into a fairly large town. That was where we I got my schooling and college done. I was fortunate to be in a very active community. In college, I was one of the founders of the Anti-pollution movement, which [went] against the mafia cutting down trees. We also went after the chemical industry people who would just throw their chemicals into the water streams without treatment.
I also would get students engaged in donating blood, because there was a major disconnect in the country with patient care and people donating blood to the hospitals. I was very active when I was in college. People used to ring our bell at two in the morning and my parents would know that it was for me. It could have been that someone needed blood, or someone was in need of help.
Chereen: What motivated you to be this active?
Dr. Iqbal: I think that I was born this way, alhamdulilah. My parents were supportive of whatever I was doing. Our family is like that. I remember seeing my dad volunteer at a Pakistani school in Bahrain that was not very well funded. He would spend his time and type up every exam on an old cyclose style machine. This inspired me to do more. I was in high school when I started teaching my uncle’s three kids. That was the beginning because they were my very first students.
Chereen: Can you explain the process? I feel like the groundwork started early on to prepare you for something that is so profound and in-depth.
Dr. Iqbal: There is a plan, Allahu khairul makirin. Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala has his plan. We don’t know sometimes and we get anxious sometimes, but there is always something larger than we can see. I was in my bachelor’s of science when I got selected for the naval service. The navy training is very competitive, with many steps you have to go through even to be selected and join the academy. I appreciated the opportunity because it made a man out of a boy.
We have to spend time at high seas to appreciate what we have on land. Allah says it in the Quran that when we are on ships, when we are on sea, we beg for Him to bring us on stable ground. When we are on stable ground, we become arrogant again. Those that have not been at sea have no idea what that means. Being on the other side taught me a lot about life.
Chereen: From speaking to you, I can tell that you really do apply a lot of effort and that is something that is very important to you. Can you tell me more about that?
Dr. Iqbal: This is also fard (obligation). It is very important to utilize what we have been given. We are given a rizq, and then we are told to use our rizq in a certain fashion. This is how we have to use it, as a source of help. When Allah says, “Wa mimma razaqnahom yunifiqun.” I give you rizq and you have to do yunfiqun out of it. Why shouldn’t we be using that rizq to do what we are supposed to do? Our goal should be to use this rizq as a source of benefit and relief.
Chereen: Can you tell me about the process of your innovative work? What started this development?
Dr. Iqbal: It has been a work of 4 to 5 years. It has been the work of many, many good hardworking students. The rate it has evolved, and I will tell you that it has evolved because we did not just hit it. It starts with living things, and in living things there are organs. There are layers of tissue that support those organs. Some of the organs that get cancer, some of the cells break apart, and pass through those membranes or supporting tissue and get into the bloodstream. This is how metastasis occurs.
There is something interesting called the basement membrane. When you imagine it, it looks like the carpet you see in your offices. If you rub your hand, you see it is rough and has smalls ups and downs in it. Take it down to nanometer scale texture. We have to be careful taking this big jump from millimeter to nanometer, because millimeter is thousandth part of a meter, centimeter is hundredth part of a meter. One micrometer is millionth part of a meter. To appreciate how small a micrometer is, over here is 50 to 100 micrometer. Nanometer is 1,000 times smaller than one micrometer. This is the kind of scale we are talking about that Allah Subhana Wa Ta’ala has created in our tissues. This is the supporting network. Every organ has its own types of cells. I do not even know if I can get to this depth in my lifetime. I am focusing on the basement membrane which supports this organ. Basement membrane has nano-texture to it, and it is known to be a very strong membrane. Of course it has to support all the organs in place.
Allah [ swt] has put all of these things in us with very fine delicacy and it is under pressure, but it is maintained and ordered in its place. The basement membrane shows that all these things stay in their place. The cancer cells want to go to another place and they want to make another colony, while killing that organism. Some of these cells break apart and get into blood streams. Most of them get cleared up by our immune system. When there are too many of them, some of them survive and find another distant organ. Again, they do their process by going through the tissue across the basement organ and get back to the support organ, what we call metastasis. Finding metastasis before it occurs saves lives. 90% of breast cancer deaths are actually through metastatic tumor.
This basement membrane and narrow texture, we recreated these conditions on a chip using nanotextured walls. We then saw that the metastatic tumor cells were showing distinctly different behavior than non-metastatic tumor cells. So if I get a biopsy sample from a patient and I don’t know how much metastatic potential is there in that sample, this system can tell me that as well. Just looking at that sample, an oncologist can look at that tumor and tell if it has spread, or if there might be a secondary tumor growing separately. This changes the whole approach of what therapy is to be given. It is early detection, it is precise. Hopefully, the way we are doing it and the way we have done it will make it very affordable. The goal is to deploy it as an annual physical tool and a screening tool is the goal.
Chereen: What was the leading factor that motivated you to work on something so groundbreaking and profound?
Dr. Iqbal: We all have seen our loved ones suffer with this disease. We all have seen our loved ones struggling and scared for the rest of their lives, because they went through something like this. My sister-in-law was a very humble lady, and she died from blood cancer. It happens by the will of Allah. We did not have tools to see it. Allahu khairul Makireen. I used to wish if I could do something for biochemistry, for the chemistry of diseases. I did not know how to go about it, but alhamdulilah we end up guided. I ended up having a doctoral advisor who was doing beautiful work in bio-detection, who gave me the opportunity to audit a course in Bio-MEMS. I sat and saw if this was something I wanted to do, and it changed my life. I was able to work on genes and detection of genes, and then I began to collaborate with people as an Assistant Professor. I worked with people that did remarkable work, which motivated me to want to do more.
Chereen: What kept you motivated throughout this journey?
Dr. Iqbal: The support is very important; you have to be in the company of the right people. My first doctoral advisor, Dr. Rashid Bashir has always been there to push me. My parents, my wife, my kids have always been there for me and to make dua’a for me. They have given me the freedom to spend my time on this. My wife did a major role in giving me my piece of mind and full support. This is the blessing of Allah Subhana Wa Ta’ala, He puts you in the right company and gives you the correct support where you are reminded of how you can spend of your time and opportunities wisely. Going into the right company has helped me, I have learned from them and that has kept me inspired. Being friends with people that have been good to you and people that want to do well is what will keep you motivated.
Chereen: How has this accomplishment made you feel?
Dr. Iqbal: I went to the same school that Neil Armstrong went to, Purdue. He said, “It is one small step.” I don’t think we are there yet; I think it is a small step there. I am not saying we have achieved everything we can, but we have achieved a lot. However, there is much more that needs to be done. I say alhamdulilah, because we are one step closer.
Chereen: What advice would you give to anyone that wants to make a change in the world?
Dr. Iqbal: Gain experience! Pick right role models, your role models have to be good people. The beauty of America is that in every city there is a major university, where you can find the type of people who think about doing good for others. Where they are from does not matter, but it is the common goal that matters. It is their desire to good that should teach you how to become a better person. You have to learn how to be patient, to not live in a cocoon, and to learn how to be inspired from other people’s differences. This helps you get into the right environment, and then Allah will open ways for you. From there, you will gain experiences, and you will learn from your experiences. This world is full of many different people. The Prophet was sent for all of humanity, and it is on you to want to help all of the world and everyone in it. You should want to be a mercy for all of mankind. This is how you will begin to change the world for the better. This is how you will make a difference.