Over the span of four decades, Sir Magdi Yacoub has performed more heart transplants than any other surgeon in the world. He has led cutting-edge research in the field that has cemented his status as a medical pioneer. And yet it is his charity work – specifically for the Magdi Yacoub Heart Foundation – in which he takes the greatest pride. In this eniGma exclusive, James Purtill speaks to Sir Yacoub about his future plans for the life-saving and life-changing Aswan Heart Centre.

Research,” Sir Magdi Yacoub starts saying on the phone from London, in a deep Egyptian-accented voice, “is treating patients in the future.”   It’s a neat summary that crops up regularly in his interviews. He has probably used it a thousand times in meetings with ministry officials, potential donors and reporters on a deadline.  But soon this advocacy work will bear fruit.

In early 2012 the Magdi Yacoub Heart Foundation’s Aswan Heart Centre will have completed its first major expansion. The developments include more beds, better imaging equipment and most importantly, an entirely new research facility – crucial in a field in which techniques are developing at lightening speeds. Indeed, heart diseases that were inoperable just 10 years ago can now be treated thanks to the labours of doctors around the world. The fact that this centre nestles in the southernmost region of Egypt – far from the capital – makes it all the more remarkable. “In Aswan people suffer because of lack of facilities,” explains Sir Yacoub. “Almost all of the centres which deal with heart disease, particularly in children, are localised around Cairo. This centre is located in what is considered a neglected area.”

Sir Yacoub also chose Aswan in the hopes of enticing high-profile world-class surgeons to volunteer. “It is an amazing place, where all the workers as well as the patients get inspired by the environment. A lot of people from around the world volunteer free of charge. We have a lot of collaboration from surgeons from the U.K., U.S., Europe and Canada.” In turn, these international surgeons have taught techniques to Egyptian surgeons, making the centre a hotbed of surgical talent.

“It will take a lot of effort to ensure this facility achieves its potential as an international centre. Then, of course, it could become a model for other centres in other parts of Egypt,” he says, dismissing a question about whether the Foundation will build other centres in the near future. “But right now it is absolutely essential to ensure we realise our full potential. Next year will see the commissioning of purpose-built children facilities as well as a state of the art imaging centre with MRI and CT scans. There will also be more modern facilities for performing more advanced research.”

Heart disease research has long been a neglected field in Egypt, despite its profile as the leading cause of death in the developing world. In 2009, 210,000 people in Egypt died from heart disease. Following the January 25th uprising, Sir Yacoub saw an opportunity to place more policy emphasis on training and research. “After the revolution young people realised that science ought to be of the highest priority. The national budget for research has traditionally been very low, about 4% of GNP. That needs to change drastically. And we are actually now starting to see incremental budget increases. High quality healthcare, research and the creation of centres of excellence to serve the community have to become an absolute priority.”

Although the value of research is intuitively obvious, Sir Yacoub remarks that it is all too easy to procrastinate on such long-term projects. As such, fighting for a better future is an ongoing battle due to the budget demands of the present. “There was resistance to the idea of servicing research projects and there was even suspicion that we were experimenting on patients,” he says. “We had to convince authorities that the reality is quite the opposite. Research is designed to improve healthcare. We are collaborating with the Ministry of Higher Education and Research but we have not received any funding whatsoever from the government.” Asked if he would be receptive to such funding, he pauses, and then says, “of course!”

“I always wanted to pay back the big debt I owe to Egypt,” he adds. “I grew up in Egypt and I owe a lot to the people and the country. Although I spent most of my life in the U.K. and have a massive loyalty to the U.K., I am originally Egyptian. I always wanted to be a heart surgeon – my father was a surgeon and my aunt died of heart disease in her early 20s, which my father thought could have been corrected with heart surgery. This has been a major stimulus for my line of work.”

Sir Yacoub studied for his primary medical degree at the Cairo University, graduated in 1957 and moved to England in 1962 to train with the great heart surgeons of the time. “I’d heard about particular surgeons whom I wanted to learn from.” He performed his first heart transplant in 1980 as Consultant Cardiac Surgeon at Harefield Hospital in London and nine years later he performed his 1000th  surgery.

10 years ago Sir Yacoub retired, having performed more heart transplants than any other surgeon in the world.  He now divides his time between research (in April 2007 it was reported that a British medical research team led by Sir Yacoub had grown part of a human heart valve from stem cells) and developing his international private charity, The Chain of Hope. The charity, which is a separate entity to the Magdi Yacoub Heart Foundation, aims to provide children suffering from life-threatening diseases with corrective surgery and treatment to which they do not have access.

“What is important is the quality of the work and the service we provide,” Sir Yacoub explains, dismissing the hundreds of awards and honours he has received. Long ago he stopped taking notice of them: he has little time. He has just returned from the charity’s heart centre in Jamaica and will soon depart for Cairo, and from there Aswan. This interview takes place in a rare half-hour window between appointments, and towards the end it’s clear his attention has already drifted to the afternoon’s schedule. Yet he gives us one final thought on his future work, which no doubt will be true, “2012 is going to be a very busy and exciting year!”