A 28-year-old researcher with big dreams, Yehia Abugabal was selected by Forbes this year as one of the world's 30 Under 30. In a candid talk with CairoScene, the young oncologist explains what the recognition means, and how he sets out to transform the medical landscape in the Middle East.
A young oncologist with big dreams for an anesthetized nation; an entrepreneurial spirit who doesn't wait for opportunities to knock on his door; a visionary researcher who is stepping up to drive change, leading the way to develop a genuine Egyptian scientific effort. Yehia Abugabal, founder of the International Cancer Research Center, was featured this year as one of Forbes’ 30 under 30, a prestigious list that has been gathering the world’s brightest entrepreneurs, breakout talents, and changemakers every year - from Mark Zuckerberg, to Emma Watson to Malala Youzafzai - to spark collaborations and take a step forward towards global change.
As he gears up to participate at the international conference in Philadelphia next September, the young oncologist narrates the journey that led him to establish a regional pioneering medical research centre, managing hundreds of physicians and volunteers, partnering with international entities, and organising regional conferences that gathered 3,000 medical experts.
How did Forbes find you?
I have no idea. I was surprised, because I wasn’t approached by Forbes Middle East; it was Forbes international who reached out to me. It is a very interesting initiative; they are trying to help people connect throughout the year through different conferences and an online app, so that they trigger collaborations. There will be a big award ceremony in Philadelphia in September.
And what do you see for yourself there?
I hope that they help me connect and foster the process of achieving my dream, which is advancing research in cancer in Egypt and lessening the pain of patients. We are currently working on a game and mobile app which will be the first of its kind in the Middle East, to raise awareness and teach children about cancer. I believe if we provide the younger ones with knowledge on the importance of early detection, we can defeat cancer. Many women in Egypt don't even know that they have to undergo checkups.
Now, how does a 20-year-old student found a research centre and why?
I started working in cancer awareness programs since my last year at Ain Shams University in 2011, when I was doing an internship. The problem is that there is no hope for scientific progress and cure without research; awareness is not enough. For example, there are no fully detailed statistics as regards cancer patients, so we can't know the accurate magnitude of the problem. We know from estimates that there are 113,000 new cases of cancer in Egypt every year. But the details, the real magnitude of the problem is unknown. If you go to most hospitals, there is no digital database, so it needs to be grouped and digitised in order to have statistics.
There are many things that could be altered just by having data. We have noticed that there is a very high incidence of lung cancer in Shubra andHelwan; and lung cancer is one of the most deadly types of cancer. It may have to do with pollution in the area, but that is something we could only address if we knew statistics. However, it continues to receive low public health priority, not only because of limited resources but mainly due to a lack of awareness about the magnitude of the current and future cancer burden among healthcare providers, policy makers, the public and governmental health agencies.
The problem is that in Egypt and the Middle East, we are mostly applying what researchers in the USA and Europe discover, which could be wrong because genetic characteristics and local conditions might be different in Egypt; so we need to personalise knowledge and the approach for each patient in our region.
How did the actual centre take shape?
We decided that we want to work on research, both retrospective and prospective. In the retrospective aspect, we want to create a registry of patients to assess the problem; we have recruited researchers, medical students, lecturers, and interns who are passionate about research.
However, we ran into several problems: there is no data, there are no funds, and people do not know how to research. There were many passionate professionals, but they were not taught how to do it. So we created a program to train them. We also started collaborating with other entities. We contacted the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the USA, who train their researchers for six months and certify them, to offer their course here as well. We successfully collaborated with them to bring the course to Egypt!
We have also organised eight conferences in the past years, in gynecology, breast cancer, and gastrointestinal cancer. The last one, last January, focused on breast cancer, bringing more than 50 high caliber international cancer experts and 3,000 attendees.
Were you able to continue with your efforts even during the 2011 revolt?
Yes, the revolution was a very important milestone for our conference, which was set to be January, the same month when the revolt happened. It was a really big challenge because we had invited experts from USA and Europe and people were afraid to come. But to our surprise, everyone came.
And how do you build trust, being so young, in the medical environment?
They see your work and they see that you are actually capable of creating something. When they see that you were able to implement the idea, they know they win by having you on their team. Today, we get funding from individual donations and sponsors as well as pharmaceutical companies.
In a society plagued by taboos, have you encountered many?
Some people are afraid of the word cancer. So when you approach them for awareness and tell them they need to for checkups, they react defensively. Many patients are actually being treated for cancer in clinics, while they don’t know they have cancer. Their families know, but they tell them it is an infection or anything else. We do know that the mentality of some Egyptians is that they can go into a state of shock and actually get worse. Eventually, they know but they pretend they don’t know as a form of self-denial.
One of the things we say at our campaign is that cancer is not a death sentence. People think that chemotherapy means vomiting, and losing their hair and nails. This was a very old concept, it is no longer that horrible, especially if you get detected in an early stage.
What is the biggest challenge of doing research in Egypt?
It is hard to gain people’s enthusiasm to collaborate with you. It is not easy to gain trust of entities because you need to fight a traditional system where altering the status quo is hard. Across clinics and hospitals, 90 per cent of records are not electronic. So we try to collaborate with oncology clinics and hospitals to connect all of them and digitise them. We offer our support with machines and trained personnel in exchange for data, but it is not always easy to gain their trust.
However, funding still remains the biggest obstacle. But if you believe in something, you keep paying for it without expecting any return.
Who do you admire?
Elon Musk, the creator of Tesla, SpaceX. He is a real genius. I admire entrepreneurs who have creative drastic changes in the world.
What is the ultimate dream for your centre?
We now work on four areas: patient support, research, awareness, and education. We want to be like the just like American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO), the leading international organisations. Because there is no treatment for cancer so far, what we do is to gather and set up guidelines according to experience on the best approach to different types of cancer. But I have big dreams. I want to open my eyes to a world free of cancer.
Photography production by @Mo4network #Mo4Productions.
Photography by Ahmed Najeeb.