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Q&A with Mohab M. Ibrahim

In the following Q&A we explore the transformative journey of Mohab Ibrahim, a distinguished physician-scientist at the University of Arizona. Ibrahim's unyielding commitment to comprehending and alleviating pain has shaped his illustrious career, seamlessly blending roles as a compassionate clinician and an innovative researcher.

Mohab M. Ibrahim serves as the Director of Medical Affairs for the University of Arizona Health Sciences Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center, Director of the Pain Management Clinic and a Professor of Anesthesiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson.

In the midst of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, a 16-year-old Mohab Ibrahim witnessed the harrowing journey of a woman suffering from abdominal cancer. The lack of medical facilities and closed pharmacies left her in excruciating pain, and the boy, unable to offer more than compassionate companionship, watched helplessly as she passed away before reaching Jordan. This profound experience fueled Ibrahim's determination to better understand and manage pain, shaping his subsequent journey from Egypt to the United States, where he became a physician-scientist dedicated to chronic pain research and treatment.

Following his childhood dream of becoming a doctor, Ibrahim's unique path led him from studying geophysics in Egypt to earning a medical degree and a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Arizona. Guided by mentor Phil Malan, he seamlessly merged his passion for medicine and research. Now, as an anesthesiologist and director of the chronic pain clinic, Ibrahim conducts groundbreaking research, particularly in the realm of green light therapy, aiming to provide innovative solutions for pain management.

Where did you grow up? 

While I’m originally from Egypt, I grew up in Kuwait and Egypt. I arrived in the United States when I was 16 years old.

Can you tell us about your educational and professional background?

After finishing high school in Egypt, I joined the University of Cairo with a major in geophysics. After my freshman year, I immigrated to the United States. I started at Pima Community College and then transferred to the University of Arizona In Tucson, Arizona. I completed my Bachelor of Science with a major in biochemistry and a minor in mathematics from the University of Arizona in 1998. I continued my studies at the University of Arizona and completed my Master’s and Ph.D. in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Pharmacology and Toxicology in 2002 and 2004, respectively. After graduate school, I joined the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona and completed my Medical Degree in 2008. I became a surgical intern at the University of Arizona and completed the surgical internship in 2009. After that, I joined the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA. and completed my residency in Anesthesiology, Perioperative & Pain medicine in 2012. Finally, I joined the Massachusetts General Hospital and completed my Chronic Pain Fellowship in 2013. I returned to the University of Arizona and joined the College of Medicine – Tucson faculty in 2014.

What inspired you to pursue a career in research, and how did you get interested in your current field of study?

When I was young, I had to escape Kuwait to my homeland, Egypt. This happened during the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1991. My mom and I escaped in a van, and we had to drive from Kuwait through Iraq to Jordan, where we were supposed to take a flight to Egypt. The van had several people in it. One of the passengers was a woman who apparently had some abdominal cancer. As you can imagine, the invasion resulted in the shutdown of almost all health facilities in Kuwait. No pharmacies were open. No hospitals were open. There was practically no medical care. My guess is that that woman ran out of her pain medications. She was experiencing severe abdominal pain on the journey. I was about 16 years old then and never witnessed someone experiencing such intense pain before. We had no medications or tools to help that woman manage her pain. All we could do was hold her hand to try to comfort her. However, that woman died before we arrived in Jordan, where the authorities removed her body from the van. That experience left me with a concrete desire to find ways to manage pain. When I eventually immigrated to the United States, I was fortunate enough to work with my mentor, Dr. Phil Malan, an anesthesiologist at the University of Arizona with an interest in pain research. Dr. Malan mentored and shaped my research career and helped me ask better questions that can be addressed scientifically. After finishing my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I became a physician specializing in anesthesiology with a fellowship in chronic pain. Now, I try to address the difficult clinical scenarios I encounter in the clinic with my research team. When we find a suitable answer in the lab, we obtain IRB approvals for clinical trials or basic science. We have discovered the benefits and efficacy of photobiomodulation, especially green light visual exposure, in pain management. Currently, we are researching the mechanisms by which visual exposure to green light reduces pain.

"Q&A with Mohab M. Ibrahim"
Shell of bombed and burned building in Kuwait City following Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War.

Can you describe the research projects you are currently working on and how they contribute to your field?

  1. The Department of Defense is funding our investigation into how visual green light exposure decreases surgical pain in animal models.
  2. The Veterans Administration is funding a project that is looking into how visual exposure to green light can address the chronic pain component of traumatic brain injury in animal models.
  3. The NIH is funding a clinical trial that is investigating the effect of sulfasalazine in reducing the pain associated with metastatic breast cancer to the bones.
  4. The Fight the Flame Foundation is funding a project looking into the effects of rapamycin and green light exposure to reduce the pain associated with complex regional pain syndrome in animal models.

How did the U.S. immigration system help or hinder your efforts to establish your career here? 

The U.S. immigration system was a slow process for me. I believe it took me about 10 years, maybe a little bit longer, from when I applied until I obtained my permanent residency. However, given that I was a student during most of this process, the duration of time it took to complete my immigration process did not have a direct impact on my ability to do research. Overall, I would say that the U.S. immigration system had a neutral effect on my ability to conduct research or advance my career.

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments so far in your research career?

First and foremost, I made my mother prouder of me. In my opinion, that’s my biggest accomplishment. On an academic level, the most significant accomplishment is the network of researchers and mentors I have cultivated over the years, thanks to my research. On a medical level, my biggest accomplishment was introducing a new therapy platform for those suffering from pain and other chronic conditions. I successfully completed two clinical trials investigating the effects of green light exposure in patients with fibromyalgia and patients with migraine. I am happy to report that most of these patients found significant relief with our green light therapy. Additionally, we are in the process of making the green light technology available to the public. From a collaborative standpoint, my biggest accomplishment was to take part in a strategic initiative of the University of Arizona Health Sciences, spearheaded and directed by Dr. Todd Vanderah, the department head of pharmacology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson, to create the Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center. I currently serve as the center’s Associate Director of Medical Affairs. This multidisciplinary umbrella entity addressed chronic pain and substance use disorder through clinical care, research, education and legislation. Its members are tasked with innovation, outreach, education, and commercialization of medical technologies. Additionally, through the Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center, the University of Arizona established a strategic alliance with Oklahoma State University. This alliance is championed by Dr. Don Kyle from Oklahoma State University and Dr. Todd Vanderah and Dr. Frank Porreca from the University of Arizona.

Can you talk about any collaborative projects you have worked on with colleagues from other countries? 

I currently do not have collaborative projects with colleagues from other countries. However, my lab hosts some researchers from other countries. For example, Dr. Laurent Martin started in my lab as a postdoc from France. Now, he is an assistant professor in the Department of Anesthesiology and a member of the Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center. He is an extremely active member of the lab and a key person on several grants. Dr. Martin has presented our findings in several French meetings. I suspect that we may develop close collaboration with our French friends in the future. Dr. Joon Park is a postdoc from South Korea who recently started in our lab. Also, Dr. Khalid Ismail is a senior scientist and physician from Egypt who recently joined our lab. So, while we do not have active collaborative research projects with foreign countries, our laboratory hosts several outstanding international researchers.

What advice would you give to other immigrants who are pursuing careers in research or academia in the United States? 

My personal experience taught me that hard work is rewarded in the United States. My impression is that the United States is a welcoming nation. My advice is to find a mentor to help you navigate. Find out what you are passionate about, then try to channel your passion into something that can benefit society and your career aspirations. Also, understanding the culture of your institution or company and trying to find common ground to align your goals with the goals of your institution or company may facilitate success. Finally, be enthusiastic about your projects, but garnish that enthusiasm with a good work ethic and patience. Patience is a virtue.

What do you see as the future of research in your field, and how do you plan to contribute to its progress and advancement?

There is currently a big emphasis on multi-model approaches to manage chronic conditions such as pain. Funding institutions will likely encourage collaborative work from different specialties to address chronic conditions holistically. Also, there is an increasing interest in non-pharmacological interventions to control chronic conditions such as pain. Currently, my research trajectories address both of these components. We are collaborating with several different specialties to control pain. For example, we currently have collaborations with psychiatry, psychology, oncology, pharmacology, and others. We are also heavily invested in non-pharmacological modalities to address pain, especially green light therapy. Finally, there is a strong desire to increase the translation of basic science to clinical therapies, as this is one of the missions of the Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center.

Any final words? 

Anyone can dream. But dreams need the drive and the will to turn into realities.