Published in Gulf Times on October 23, 2003

Turning swords into ploughshares

Gulf Times journalist LENA LIEW learns how an Iraqi American nuclear scientist working on defense and space research turned his focus to helping the fight against disease instead. And he's here in Doha to offer his expertise.

Dr Ma'an

  Weapon n. 2 means for gaining the advantage in a conflict.
- Pocket Oxford Dictionary

Among the eminent breast cancer experts from the world over who descended upon Doha recently to address the inaugural GCC international breast cancer conference, one speaker stood out.

Literally ... beyond his starched white Arab garb, the laptop that he constantly had slung from his shoulder, and his lively presentation that was a refreshing departure from the others which were confined to the lectern.

Dr Ma'an Nassar Raja al-Ani, PhD (Bio-optical Physics), MSc (Physics & Neuropharmacology), BSc (Chemistry), was neither a breast surgeon nor an oncologist. Neither was he a pathologist, histologist, radiologist nor a geneticist researching breast cancer.
His current expertise in laser optics transcends the boundaries of all those specialties and more. Dr Ma'an is the joint patent holder of arguably the world's most advanced microscopy technology to date.

In the paper that he presented at the breast cancer conference, he outlined how his prototype single shot nanosecond laser plasma X-ray microscope (LPXRM) offers a resolution of nearly 100 times greater than the most advanced laser scanning confocal microscope (LSCM) that some researchers are presently using to study live diseased cells in their natural state.

The LPXRM offers a resolution of as much as 2-5 nanometers, compared to the LSCM's maximum of 200 nanometers. The smaller the figure, the greater the resolution - i.e. the clarity of detail.

To put things into perspective, the rhinovirus that causes the common cold is approximately 20 nanometers in diameter. That means you could line up 50,000 rhinoviruses end to end across one millimeter. And we're talking about "ultra-structures" within a single cell here.

"What's more important is the fact that the LPXRM is compact, user-friendly, and relatively low-cost," Dr Ma'an stressed in an interview with Gulf Times.

"Also, the LPXRM takes just 1 nanosecond - 0.000000001 seconds - to capture an image. Lined up in sequence, the images could revolutionise studies on the impact of drugs, heat, radiation, chemicals and micro-organisms within a live human cell. It's progress towards real-time X-ray microscopy!"

Why the stress on "live" human cell?

"Before the Laser Scanning Confocal microscope came along, doctors and scientists had to dehydrate a specimen cell before studying it through, say, an electron microsope. That not only kills the specimen cell, the dehydration process alters the structure of the cell and its contents. So your observations cannot be accurate," Dr Ma'an explained.

What's more interesting, though, is how a nuclear scientist working on US Department of Defence and NASA projects in the University of Florida turned his attention to biomedical research instead.

"Take a pair of scissors, for example," Dr Ma'an began. "It can be used as a weapon to cause injury. But if I modify the design, and make it child-safe, a child can safely use it to make wonderful handicraft.

"The same concept applies to science. It depends on who's using the scientific knowledge gained from research," said the scientist whose resume stretches from nuclear fission to nuclear engineering, nano-optics, gene therapy, and toxicology before it arrives at laser optics and cancer research.

The fact that Dr Ma'an is a naturalised American citizen originally from Iraq makes this issue all the more significant in the light of current affairs.

"As a scientist, it is in my nature to pursue a greater understanding of nature, and to seek solutions to scientific questions," he said.

"Whether or not my work leads to the creation of weapons which would one day cause death and destruction to my people is beyond my control. The work I do may be used by others to do good too, if they choose.

"Meanwhile, I have a job to do, answers to pursue, a living to make, and a family to provide for."

Still, Dr Ma'an credits a close friend of his for being a major influence on his life and career.

"Sometime in 1994, I befriended the man who changed my life - a Qatari sheikh who was pursuing his MBA in hospital management in Boston after qualifying as a medical doctor. His name is Khalid al-Jaber al-Thani.

"Sheikh Khalid convinced me that there was greater satisfaction to be gained as a scientist helping to save lives. But first, I would have to go into medicine, which was quite far removed from what I had been doing as a physicist.

"Sheikh Khalid helped me earn my MSc in pharmacology (medicines). Eventually, I ended up merging physics and pharmacology in my MSc thesis and contributed to the development of three patented drugs for Alzheimers Disease."

Dr Ma'an went on to earn his PhD in the application of laser to optics and medicine in 2001 and got his doctoral thesis "secured" (copyrighted and/or patented) in February 2002.

After working together on a clinical study of the LPXRM's applications last year, Sheikh Khalid asked Dr Ma'an to come to Qatar to explore prospects for setting up a cancer research lab in Qatar. Sheikh Khalid is presently the chairman of the Qatar National Cancer Society and the owner of Q-Medic group.

"It's going to be a very costly endeavour overall, because we are going to be breaking new ground here. I came six months ago and we have been holding discussions with various parties," Dr Ma'an said.

"Ideally, we should link up with Hamad Hospital and also Qatar University so that Qatar as a country gains in terms of know-how," he added, drawing parallels to how research facilities in American state universities benefit the country more than privately-funded research labs do.

The breast cancer conference held here was the perfect forum for Dr Ma'an to further publicise his work and establish contacts with like-minded researchers from other countries.

"Many of the overseas cancer specialists at the conference have expressed interest in the LPXRM, especially the Germans. I'm waiting to see how things work out," Dr Ma'an added.

On a personal front, Dr Ma'an credits his American wife Margie, a family resource specialist, for being the wind beneath his wings. They have one son aged four-and-a-half.

"Oh, she has suffered so much ... having to share my time and attention with my work. I am sometimes so focused on my work that I forget about my family," Dr Ma'an said regretfully.

"The worse was when I was frantically trying to beat the clock to obtain an LPXRM image of a live cancer cell from a dying patient. I had personally promised her that she would get to see the 'enemy' that was killing her before she died.

"For days at a stretch we worked with hardly any rest ... I simply forgot to go home.

"Unfortunately, the patient died just before I arrived at her hospital with the LPXRM image of a cancerous cell that she donated."

Dr Ma'an says he turned down an invitation by the US companies to return to Iraq to help the Americans "reconstruct" Iraq.

His research work aside, "how can I possibly abet the occupying forces by accepting a cushy job as head of whatever when I know that so many equally qualified Iraqi scientists are now jobless as a result of the war? My own brother is a nuclear physicist in Iraq; he is now jobless. I cannot in good conscience take a job that should be his."

Every human being has a work to carry on within, duties to perform abroad, influence to exert, which are peculiarly his, and which no conscience but his own can teach.
- William Ellery Channing

NOTE: Dr Ma'an is presently spending his sabbatical leave from the University of Central Florida in Qatar. He can be contacted at 5566705.