BCM oncologist celebrates win in Egypt

March 1, 2011

Giant Egyptian flag drapped over Dr. Nabil Ahmed's house.
Giant Egyptian flag drapped over Dr. Nabil Ahmed's house.

His heart was still on the streets of Cairo, from where he had recently returned, when Dr. Nabil Ahmed heard the news that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down as president of Egypt. Ahmed, assistant professor of pediatrics – hematology/oncology, was in his home town, Cairo, with his wife and two children to visit family as well

as The Children's Cancer Hospital-Egypt, a long time collaborator of Texas Children's Cancer Center, where Ahmed sees patients. They had been there only a few days when the uprising of Egyptian people against their government started.

While many outsiders were shocked by the developments in Egypt, Ahmed said that, in fact, Egyptians had been becoming increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated with the regime because of lack of jobs and other opportunities and because of the poor state of the educational system and other basic services. What's more, Ahmed said, Mubarak had become increasingly autocratic over his 30-year presidency. Still, Ahmed was surprised by the magnitude of events in Egypt. "The uprising represented a synchronized coming-together of Egyptians on a massive scale," he said.

Scene on the square

Ahmed described the scene at Liberation (Tahrir) Square when he was there as one devoid of fear. He said Egyptians are "people of the land who usually like stability and peace but they have all agreed to disagree with the regime through this revolt."

Mubarak became president in 1981, following the assassination of the then-president, Anwar Sadat. About a decade after becoming president, Mubarak starting changing the country's constitution in a way that gave the presidency more power, Ahmed explained.

"Nearly 2 million people populated the square, inducing very little harm. They were marching, often with their children on their shoulders, holding very impressive banners reflecting their feelings and their demands. It was a beautiful scene. The magnitude of it and the synchrony of people was absolutely overwhelming," he said.

The very rich and the very poor, as well as those in between, came together, living on the street in one big square because they had something in common – the desire for change, he said.

National pride

"I've never been more proud" Ahmed said. "It is the pride you feel when you see a patient you treated become cancer free – just more massive. It was quite hard not to stay. If it weren't for the nature of my profession as a pediatric oncologist and cancer researcher, I would have continued to be on the street in Cairo."

Ahmed believes the uprising has erased the recent divide between religions. "Egyptians have danced together in unison at a very big dance, and they're not asking who's who," he said of the uprising. "In the square, Christians cordoned off an area making a human shield for Friday Prayers, and then Muslims did the same during a Sunday Mass."

Dual passions

Ahmed's passion for what is going on in his homeland is matched by his commitment to treating and researching cancer, particularly brain cancer.

"A corrupt government is like having cancer," he said. "In the laboratory, we take the patient's immune cells and modify and grow them into many, many more cells that 'synchronize' to recognize and eliminate the tumor – just like the uprise of the people of Egypt."

Ahmed is a physician-scientist in the Texas Children's Cancer Center, a joint program of BCM and Texas Children's. He is also a member of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy, a joint program of BCM, Texas Children's Hospital and The Methodist Hospital.