Award-winning young scientist Hosam Zowawi is working on a revolutionary new test to combat superbugs
When Hosam Zowawi was seven years old, a relative bought his father a microscope as a present. The scientific instrument sat gathering dust until Zowawi’s father bestowed the unwanted gift on his son.
“He never used it so said I could,” recalls Zowawi, now 30. “I remember looking at an ant under it for the first time. The size and what I could see were amazing. I was obsessed from then on. I realised there are many things in the world we cannot really observe with the natural eye yet they are very complicated and interesting to study.”
That life-transforming endowment at a young age set Saudi-born Zowawi on a career path in which he has excelled. The microbiologist and doctoral student has made it his mission to combat drug-resistant bacteria, one of the biggest threats to healthcare today. According to the World Health Organisation, resistance to antibiotics is a global threat reaching “an alarming level”.
Perhaps even more shockingly, Zowawi’s homeland and the surrounding Gulf countries are among the worst-affected areas for superbugs. The scientist learned as much while working as an infection control trainee in Jeddah after graduating from Umm Al-Qura University in Mecca.
He saw patients admitted for routine procedures like hip replacements and eye operations then developing secondary, life-threatening infections in the same hospitals treating them, thanks to the prevalence of superbugs. And he fears the culture of casual antibiotic use in the Middle East, over-prescription of antibiotics without proper diagnosis and the easy availability of drugs over the pharmacy counter are contributing to the problem.
Zowawi aims to counteract the growing problem by developing a new test which will accurately pinpoint what infection doctors are dealing with in a matter of hours rather than the three or four days it currently takes.
Called Rapid Superbug, it will also determine whether the bacteria present are resistant to antibiotics – putting a halt to medication being prescribed needlessly and in doing so, stopping the continuous cycle of overuse of antibiotics, which is contributing to the problem in the first place. “The improper use of antibiotics has damaging consequences. Bacteria are placed under pressure to become resistant to antibiotics,” says Zowawi, who is currently studying for a doctorate at the University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research in Australia, a leading biological research institution.
“Antibiotics can also demolish sensitive bacteria and leave the resistant ones without competition. If you get sick, the most common thing is to be given antibiotics or worse, you go out and get them yourself with no prescription.
“At the moment, the only way to identify what antibiotics to use on a patient in hospital is trial and error. You give them a little of everything and see what works. It is too much and the viruses become immune.
“Imagine if all illnesses became resistant to the drugs we use to treat them. It will be like the past when people used to die of a sore throat. We will be helpless. And how many people come through the GCC every day? The world is much smaller now. Viruses will spread too much.”
Nearly a century ago, penicillin inventor Alexander Fleming first warned of the danger, he adds. Zowawi’s pioneering research earned him a Rolex Award for Enterprise last year. He was one of five young laureates worldwide granted just over $50,000 for his innovative work and the first Saudi to be named a young laureate. The bi-annual Rolex enterprise awards have attracted more than 30,000 applicants since they were first launched in 1976 but only 190 have been successful, with just two winners coming from Saudi Arabia. The young laureate category was set up in 2009 to award innovators aged between 18 and 30.
Zowawi, who was also named one of Time magazine’s next generation leaders, plans to put his prize money toward his research. But he has some other unconventional ideas about how to win support for his new test from both the healthcare profession and the public.
“We need awareness of the problem. I am a keen polo player and want to start a team called the Superbug Slayers,” says Zowawi, who bears more than a passing resemblance to top polo player Nacho Figueras. “I want us to enter international tournaments to spread the message. Every person reached helps. Hopefully we will find the answer.”