A young PhD scholar and scientist who hails from Lyari in Karachi, Waqas Usman Hingoro, has recently been selected to attend the Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS), slated to be held in January 2019 in Singapore.
Hingoro, the young cancer scholar who started his professional career as a medical laboratory technologist in the clinical laboratory of the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT) was awarded the Chinese government scholarship to pursue a research-based Master’s degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. Joining the Institute of Cancer Stem Cell of Dalian Medical University China — supervised by two well-recognised researchers of Harvard Medical School, USA — he got his first peer-reviewed article published in BBA Reviews on Cancer, followed by another research paper published in the Journal of Cell Death and Disease. In 2016, he secured a PhD position in the institutionally funded PhD programme of the City University of Hong Kong under the supervision of Dr Minh Le.
Along with a team of international researchers, he made a major breakthrough in the field of Cancer Biology that featured in the prestigious science journal Nature Communication in July 2018. His team has unleashed the ability of red blood cells’ component called ‘extracellular vesicles’, which can successfully carry drug delivery Nano-Particles (NPs) into the affected human body parts. Hingoro tells Eos about his ground-breaking research on cancer:
A young scientist from Lyari discovers the powers of red blood cells in drug delivery mechanisms for cancer patients
Would you recall your early school life and time you spent in Lyari, where you were born and raised?
I still remember my childhood days when I used to spend my evenings at the football stadium with my grandfather. At that time Lyari was a really peaceful place to live in, comprising a blend of different communities and ethnicities, sharing sorrows and happiness with each other. But then things changed and healthy and self-disciplined sports activities gave way to uncertainty and a fear of violence. But due to the motivation of my parents, especially my mother, such terrifying incidents never distracted my attention from my future endeavours.
I have been through many ups and downs during my academic career, and I do admit the fact that I never have been a genius student or a position holder but I do believe that a small chance can make an average student a scientist, engineer, scholar, doctor or whatever one chooses to be.
How was the experience at the SUIT, and what would you advise junior scientists interested in cancer biology research?
The SIUT provided me with a base of research and I explored the newly emerging field of cancer biology. Their motto to treat the patient with dignity kept me motivated to pursue my career to serve humanity beyond cultural and ethnic borders. The time I spent at the SIUT is an asset of my life.
Cancer biology is a multidisciplinary research area, covering almost every aspect of life sciences — from computational biology to nano-scale targeting of cancer using robotic arms. Researchers keep exploring the new avenues and create a lot of opportunities for the young scientists.
Would you like to share your memories while studying in China and Hong Kong?
Initially, China was a cultural shock, but with time it proved to be a great opportunity to explore the norms and traditions of one of the fastest-growing nations of the world. It developed a challenging spirit in me which is one of the true assets I acquired during my study tenure at Dalian Medical University (DMU) China. My Master’s supervisor Professor Pixu Liu, a Harvard University graduate, was very strict and cautious regarding punctuality, extra working hours and gradual progress in research. Adaptation to such an academic environment bore fruit and resulted with two excellent cancer research publications in reputable international science journals.
I started my PhD career with lots of experimental failures, but never gave up. The continuous support of my PhD supervisor, Dr Minh Le, and team members kept my moral high. The research skills I learned during my early educational and professional stints at the SIUT and the DMU proved to be very much helpful in tackling the challenges I encountered in my PhD tenure.
After two years of struggle I came up with my recent ground-breaking research work a with couple of international awards and am very much hopeful for such opportunities in the future as well.
How do you think we can reach out to our younger generation and encourage more young bright minds into science, especially in research?
I think a simple and very attractive way to reach out young people is to establish innovation and technology centres at the secondary school level where students are invited to share their innovative ideas and discuss recent advances in their field of interest. This will not only encourage young bright minds to come forward but also reduce the uncertainty regarding their future career prospects.
Tell us about your recent research on efficient drugs delivery to cancer cells, how could it contribute to controlling the rapid growth of various types of cancer?
In our recent work, we unleashed the ability of red blood cells’ extracellular vesicles (RBC-EVs) to act as carrier particle for drug delivery. These extracellular vesicles have the capacity to carry different types of drugs, which can be in the form of RNA (Ribonucleic Acid), protein or DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid), and can be effectively used to target a variety of cancers.
Why are Red Blood Cells (RBCs) considered ideal for clinical application against cancer?
It is because the production of extracellular vesicles from other cell types is an expensive and daunting task. It requires billions of cells to get a little amount of vesicles. In comparison, red blood cells are the most abundant and readily available cell type of the human body.
Furthermore, use of RBC-EVs reduce the risk of horizontal gene transfer as they lack DNA content and thereby provide a desirable platform for the delivery of RNA molecules in future clinical applications.
How do cancer cells transmit their features to daughter cells and maintain malignant phenotype?
As long as the transfer of information to daughter cells is concerned, cancer cells use the same phenomenon as any other cell type of the human body. Generally, the cells grow and divide in a very precise manner so that the resulting daughter cells are exactly the same as the old one. The newly formed cells further go through a number of checkpoints in order to make sure that all information is precisely copied.
Eventually, sometime a few surviving cancer cells successfully escape these checkpoints and with time they accumulate and more and more mutations take place. They transfer their malignant features to their daughter cells in order to maintain the malignant phenotype.
How is it possible for a cancer cell to stay dormant for years and why do some cancers regress spontaneously?
Well, this behaviour of cancer cells basically contradicts their definition of rapid and uncontrolled growth. As with other living beings, cancer cells also adopt survival tactics. Dormant cancer cells have the capability to remain silent for decades and start dividing once they adapt to the surrounding microenvironment. These cancer cells wisely use their “accelerator and brake” system in order to survive.
In contrast, failure to survive provokes the complex network of immune mediators, which eventually leads to the spontaneous regression of rapidly growing tumours. Though the process of spontaneous regression is mainly considered a natural remedy, there are multiple opinions. To me, the patient’s psychological behaviour and will to defeat cancer is the first step to conquer the fight against cancer.
Since cancer consists of an enormous spectrum of diseases, would you like to elaborate various causes of cancer?
Cancer can generally be defined as an uncontrolled and faster than normal rate of division of the cells. These changes mainly occur due to the alteration of certain genes, which are controlled by a wide spectrum of cell-signalling molecules and the surrounding microenvironment. Cancer can be classified based on the origin and nature of the cells; it can be carcinoma, sarcoma, melanoma, leukaemia or lymphoma. Besides the inherited genetic disorders there are several other factors which cause the normal cell to become cancerous.
A recent study shows that a person’s lifestyle, healthy diet, well-maintained health and avoiding bad habits such as smoking or drinking alcohol can significantly cut down the risk of cancer.
What are the main reasons behind the growing number of cancer cases in Pakistan?
In Pakistan, although we lack technological advancement on the therapeutic side, we have the same drugs available as in the US or any other developing country. The main reason behind the increase in cancer is a lack of awareness about the disease. The majority of our population is totally unaware of the symptoms of cancer and when is the right time to visit the doctor. Moreover, many people do not want to go to a doctor despite health issues.
We should run cancer awareness campaigns in local schools/colleges and community centres, have discussion with cancer patients and let them know how serious it can be if not properly treated. I do believe that individuals will achieve a healthier lifestyle when prevention and awareness programmes are accessible at their own place. I plan to start such awareness campaigns from my own community and local school/colleges very soon.
Furthermore, I will request government officials to prioritise investment in cancer prevention and ban or restrict the sale of all cancer causing agents such as tobacco, paan, and cigarettes.
What would be your advice to cancer patients and their families during the long course of treatment?
As a cancer researcher, I can feel the pain the patients and their families go through. I usually advise them that ‘with every difficulty there is ease’, and that your strength is the real source of courage for the patient. During the prolonged treatment, the patients’ behaviour changes a lot and it’s quite natural. They develop many psychological issues, especially getting irritated with small things. How one respond to those issues really matters, dealing wisely with such things will add up a lot of benefits in patients’ health and behaviour.
Patients must remember that only they can fight their cancer. Though they are surrounded by well-wishers who can wipe their tears, no one can fight this battle as they themselves can.
The interviewer is a freelance science journalist based in Quetta.
She tweets @saadeqakhan
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 14th, 2018