Fulfilling His Father’s Dream

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Mohab Ibrahim was 17 when he left his native Egypt for Tucson. His two older brothers had already settled here, and he wanted to get his undergraduate degree, then his medical degree from the UA College of Medicine.

It was 1993, eight years after his father died at a very young age. Mohamed Kamal Ibrahim was an internal medicine doctor and orthopaedic surgeon whose dream was to practice medicine in the United States.

Mohab Ibrahim, MD, PhD, has fulfilled that dream in his father’s honor.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, followed by a master’s degree and PhD in pharmacology and toxicology from the UA. He graduated from the UA College of Medicine in 2008, and interned in surgery at the UA.

He then did his residency in anesthesiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, followed by a prestigious fellowship in pain medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Now back at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson, as assistant professor of anesthesiology and pharmacology, Dr. Ibrahim is a highly admired researcher and clinician. He is with the College of Medicine’s world-renowned Pain Research Group, headed by Frank Porreca, PhD, professor of pharmacology and anesthesiology, and a member of the UA Cancer Center. Much of the group’s research has been funded continuously for 23 years through an NIH program project grant, and is currently up for renewal.

Dr. Ibrahim’s primary role is that of director of the Chronic Pain Management Clinic at Banner-University Medical Center South (originally named Kino Hospital). 

“I have been interested in medicine for as long as I can remember,” he said; as a child going along with his father to the hospital and clinic, and at home where his parents – his mother, Reem Ismail, was a nurse – noticed his interest.

“They gave me doctor’s toys like a mock stethoscope and a mock syringe and I really enjoyed playing with them,” he said. “They taught me quite a bit about medicine at a very early age.”

As a young teen, he attended seminars for trauma surgeons and first responders, while volunteering at hospitals and other medical facilities.

Mohamed was serving in the face of a severe physician shortage in Kuwait until he passed away in 1985. In 1991, Reem and Mohab were in Kuwait, where Mohab was in school when Iraq suddenly invaded. Mother and son quickly left the country, traveling by land and crossing Iraq into Jordan and then into Egypt, taking with them a woman who was suffering excruciating pain from an abdominal cancer.  

“There was no medicine available in Kuwait during the invasion,” Mohab Ibrahim recalled. “She cried on the whole journey, begging us to kill her, saying ‘I can’t take any more.’ We took turns holding her hands, trying to soothe her with nothing more than words. She died before we got to Jordan.

“That experience opened my eyes to the plight of people in severe pain. So when I came here to the U.S., I wanted to find new ways to do things. And I especially wanted to find new ways to relieve pain.”

He studied biology for two years at Pima Community College, then transferred to the UA. During his first year, he began work in the lab of Philip Malan, MD, PhD, professor of anesthesiology and pharmacology.

“Mohab was outstanding,” said Dr. Malan, who recently returned to the UA Department of Anesthesiology after four years as dean of the Savannah campus of Mercer University School of Medicine. 

“He wrote a lot of really important papers as an undergrad and graduate student. I think it was because of his graduate work that I got promoted to professor, so I’m very grateful for that. He was extremely productive and did great work and we wrote a lot of papers together.”

Ibrahim’s research focused on cannabinoids for the treatment of pain.

“He wrote a series of papers that got a lot of attention, and they were all related to the concept that there was a pain receptor that was acted on by cannabinoids, which are chemicals related to the active ingredient in marijuana,” Dr. Malan said. “But this receptor produced pain-relieving effects without the other effects associated with marijuana.”

Today, of course, there is Dronabinol, a synthetic cannabinoid initially developed to treat nausea and vomiting in cancer patients, and improve appetite in patients with HIV. Dr. Ibrahim and Amol Patwardhan, MD, PhD, co-director of the Chronic Pain Management Clinic, have found it enables some of their patients to discontinue opioids.

Another tool that helps patients reduce or discontinue opioids is the spinal cord stimulator, a small, implantable device that resembles a heart pacemaker, and sends electrical signals through the spinal cord to the brain to block the sensation of pain.

“Whenever possible, we don’t use opioids,” Dr. Ibrahim said. “Our goal is to get people off those medications entirely. We have been successful with patients who have been on opioids for years, and on disability, and some of them are actually going back to work.

“Of course, the alternatives don’t work for everyone, but there are very few cases where opioids are the only option.”

Dr Ibrahim is grateful to the many people who inspired him and mentored him as a researcher and clinician. To Dr. Malan, he is especially grateful.

“My first inspiration was my parents, and my second inspiration was Dr. Malan.

“He really took me under his wing. I told him if I could, I would adopt him as my father. He helped shape my career. He helped make me the person I am today.”

By Jane Erikson

Photo: Phil Malan, left, and Mohab Ibrahim