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Dr Yaser Hadi Gholami wins Physics Grand Challenges grant – “This has been my dream ever since I started studying physics”

Sydney Vital is pleased to announce that Dr Yaser Hadi Gholami, former Flagship 3 research fellow and Varian Research Fellow in Theranostics under Flagship 2, has been awarded the prestigious and competitive 2020 Physics Grand Challenges grant.

The Grand Challenges project was initiated by the University of Sydney School of Physics as a way to address the most important and exciting opportunities for physics to drive new discoveries and breakthroughs that will transform the world, and it awards funding of up to $250,000 over two years to interdisciplinary, groundbreaking projects that are difficult to fund from conventional schemes. Dr Gholami’s project, Positronium the key for cancer annihilation, was selected by the Grand Challenges panel this year. Read more about his project and how this funding will impact it in our interview with him below.

Interview with Dr Yaser Hadi Gholami, 2020 Physics Grand Challenges winner

Sydney Vital: First of all, congratulations on your win!

Dr Gholami: Thank you so much, it’s good to hear that.

SV: Who are you collaborating with on this project?

Dr Gholami:  In this project, physicists from different fields will be working with doctors from different fields to solve one of the biggest challenges for humanity – cancer. Specifically, with my multidisciplinary physics team (including medical, nuclear, particle and quantum physicists) from the University of Sydney School of Physics, we will be working with the nuclear medicine team at the Royal North Shore Hospital, led by Prof Dale Bailey, the director of Sydney Vital and a well-known nuclear medicine physicist, and medical doctors and surgeons like Prof Alexander Engel and Prof Mark Molloy. So, we’re really bringing physicists and medical doctors together.

Later on, there will also be an international collaboration with my colleagues at Harvard Medical School. This will be to translate our research into practical application. I am also collaborating with my colleagues at Harvard in the Physics department to develop computer simulations for further theoretical investigation.

SV: What was your reaction when you heard that your project had won?

Dr Gholami has been dreaming of establishing quantum oncology ever since he became a physicist.

Dr Gholami: It felt great, just awesome. This has been my dream ever since I started studying physics. I strongly believe that this will be the first step towards establishing the field of quantum medicine. We will be doing very fundamental work that will help the next generation in taking it further and keep building this field, which is very exciting.

SV: How will this grant support and enhance your research?

Dr Gholami: It’s really what makes the project possible in the first place. It’s a grant given to ideas that would struggle to attain conventional funding, which applies to my project because the idea is quite novel and out there. It’s a great thing to get confirmation from the panel that they see a lot of potential in my idea.

SV: Let’s say your mum asked you at the dinner table what it is that you are doing in this project. How do you explain it to her?

Dr Gholami: (laughs) That’s a good question. Let’s start with the problem that we are trying to solve. The main issue with patients that have cancer is metastasis, that is, the spread of cancer around the body. More than 90% of cancer patients die of metastasis rather than the primary tumour, and research has shown that if we can detect metastases at the very early stages or even spot their potential development before they grow, we can significantly improve the outcomes of patients.

Right now, we’ve got different imaging modalities such as MRI and PET scans to detect metastasis and cancer in the early stages, but we are not yet at a level where we can detect them efficiently. We can’t detect micro-metastases, for instance, because they are really small. In addition to imaging, there’s also what’s called ex-vivo analyses, where we take blood, urine and tissue samples. In this area, all our techniques have too low a sensitivity to pick up what we want. For instance, if we wanted to detect any circulating cancer cells in a blood sample, we’d need at least 100,000 cancer cells (depending on the biopsy technique) in this one sample. This means that we can’t detect cancers and metastases at really early stages, because by the time there are that many cells in a sample, it will already be more advanced.

Our technique, which is a novel antimatter marker, will be able to detect malignant cells with quantum specificity, meaning that we can detect even a very small number of cancer cells in a liquid biopsy or nano-scale metastases in a solid biopsy sample. This will be a real game changer.

SV: At this stage, your mum might ask ‘But how does it work?’

Dr Gholami: Fair enough. So, what we’re trying to do is to create an antimatter marker, which means that we’re using positrons, which are like the ‘anti-version’ of electrons, to detect malignant cells. When a positron and an electron meet, they annihilate each other and emit two photons that we can detect and use to construct an image of the tissue we are scanning, which is how a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan works.

However, our technique not only relies on detecting this, but instead looks at the stage before the annihilation, which is called a positronium, because how this forms highly relies on the physical and chemical structure of the cell it forms in. This is crucial because cancer cells and healthy cells have totally different structures and positroniums forming in each will emit either two gamma rays for a healthy cell or three gamma rays for a cancer cell. The other difference is that the positronium will exist for much longer in a cancer cell than in a healthy cell, and by detecting these differences, we will be able to distinguish cancer cells from healthy cells at extremely small quantities and sizes.

SV: How do you plan to use this technique in your project? Will you be developing a new imaging technique?

Dr Gholami:  Initially, we will be working ex-vivo. For this phase, I will be developing a spectrometer called Positron Annihilation Lifetime Spectroscopy (PALS) at the School of Physics, which we will use to derive the quantum properties of different cancer cells. Once this study has been completed, we will translate the PALS results into a new imaging modality, a positronium tomography. This new positronium tomography will then be able detect nano and sub-nano scale metastases, tissues that are undergoing malignancy development, and show us where these are.

SV: Thank you for explaining this so well and we look forward to hearing about the exciting outcomes from your research.

Dr Gholami: Thank you for having me.

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