UVA students are fascinating. They come from myriad backgrounds and are — in my experience — incredibly selfless, giving, brilliant, and compassionate. Every time I have the pleasure to meet and speak with a student, they find new ways to amaze me.
I recently had the pleasure to sit down with biomedical science (BIMS) student Mouadh Benamar. Here’s what we talked about:
What year are you?
I am a third-year graduate student in biochemistry and molecular genetics program, part of BIMS. Our lab is located in the Radiation Oncology Department.
Tell me a little about your journey to the University, and why you’re in the biomedical field.
Well, as Twyla Tharp said, “destiny is, quite often, a determined parent.” I grew up in a family that encouraged anything related to science. My mother was a medical doctor in Algeria and my father an agricultural researcher. As a child I used to collect short biographies of various inventors and researchers and scientists. I’d put them together into little booklets and read about them. It fascinated me how a single person could have such a huge impact on the scientific community; someone, who not only develops and changes the way we understand science, nature, and the world around us, but affects the lives of millions of people. However, now, I think we’re past the age of the individual contribution; we’re in the age of collaboration. But the fascination is the same.
After high-school, I moved to the United States when I was 17. My language skills were very limited and I barely knew anyone in the country. I enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College and started my college career. When I came to the States, all I can say is that I was blessed: Everyone around me was incredibly helpful. Friends, students, neighbors, professors, everyone was a huge help in getting me to where I am now.
As I became exposed to the scientific process during my undergraduate years, my research interests began to evolve. I became fascinated with understanding the complex molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in pathogenesis and carcinogenesis, and how such an understanding could be exploited to develop new therapeutic targets, design novel drugs, or find alternative ways to utilize available anti-cancer agents more effectively. Cancer is your own cells. So, in a way, you are trying to outsmart your own system.
The fascination with research also stems from the potential impact your work, however small it is, may have on society. For instance, I was presenting my poster last year in front of the downtown paramount theater as part of the annual UVA Public Days event. While I was explaining to someone how our work at UVA has a potential in improving the lives of patients, this man suddenly pulled down his shirt and showed me what looks like a chemo port. So this person, who was politely and attentively listening to me, is an actual patient whose life depends on the very theoretical promises students and researchers talk about during our scientific meetings. This person was extremely cheerful and hopeful. His positive attitude remains a powerful reminder — someone out there is relying on you.
Are you involved in any extracurricular activities?
As is the case with most UVA students, I had the chance to be involved in a number of extracurricular activities over the past few years. Most activities are through the local community and UVa CIOs such as the Muslim Student Association. The activities vary from assisting fellow students and community members with various weekly and monthly activities, lectures, weekend schools, youth programs and family gatherings and events at the Charlottesville Mosque.
Also, as a member of the Islamic Society of Central Virginia, I was blessed to have the opportunity to be involved in a number of outreach activities such as reaching out to the newly arrived refugees in collaboration with the International Rescue Center. In addition, we had the opportunity to work with our amazing Charlottesville interfaith community in numerous events and projects such as IMPACT Charlottesville, a collaboration of faith-based congregations and organizations to influence local policy-makers to help impoverished and underserved populations in the greater Charlottesville-Albemarle area. We are trying to be involved as much as possible as our resources and time permit.
As a student, it appears that the culture of serving the community gets injected into you as soon as you walk onto the Lawn. This culture does not make you see these activities as chores or extracurricular, but more of a duty that is becoming part of your life.
Working alongside local community leaders and fellow students is a priceless learning experience. When I was training for a semester in the rescue squad, after we came back from a call at night, the UVA medical student leading our truck picked up his book to continue studying for an exam he had, I believe, the next day. Our shift was going to be over in the morning, and his exam was only a couple hours later. I was not impressed by his ability to drive the ambulance all night then go straight to take an exam (unfortunately we all had to do that at some point), I was rather amazed by the fact that he was tirelessly studying to earn a degree to be the person he already is: an active member trying to save lives at the expense of his own “free time.” This is the case with every volunteer or intern — whether in a hospital, a research lab, a law firm, or a literacy center.
I hope to continue this philosophy in my studies and research. Whether you are a medical doctor or a researcher, you are doing your best to excel at what you do and your part to serve our community.
Also, on the side, I practice taekwondo for fun and as a way to stay active.
What is your subject of study?
Our lab’s primary focus is to understand the role of the protein degradation system in the development and progression of human cancer. We examine the role these pathways play in promoting cellular responses to current therapies and how we can use this information in the clinic. Our most recent paper is an attempt to understand the mechanism of action of a recent investigational drug called pevonedistat in melanoma and how it can potentially be used as a single agent or in combination with current anti-melanoma treatments.
I am the primary author on a paper published in EBioMedicine. Dr. Tarek Abbas is the principal investigator — the idea of this project and the experimental design came from his prior work. We collaborated with Drs. Fadila Guessous, Kangping Du, Joseph Obeid, Daniel Gioeli, and Craig Slingluff, and a recent UVA graduate Patrick Corbett.
That’s fantastic! What were your findings?
A specific protein, CDT2, is an essential part of a specific protein degradation complex involved in cell growth. We have shown that this protein is amplified in melanoma patient samples and correlates negatively with patient survival, suggesting that CDT2 could potentially be used as a negative prognostic factor. That is: the less you have it, the more likely you are to survive the melanoma.
Pevonedistat is an anti-cancer agent currently in clinical trials in a number of cancer types. This drug was developed by Takeda Oncology (previously Millennium Pharmaceuticals). Obviously we didn’t make it, but we confirmed its efficacy against melanoma and especially some tumors that resisted one of the current treatments. We also identified that the CDT2 protein complex appears to play a significant role in underlying the anti-melanoma efficacy of this drug.
One great observation is that this drug doesn’t seem to be harmful to normal cells and it seems to be as effective in cells that resisted one of the current treatments.
What’s next for you?
The next step is my PhD thesis project. I will further examine the role of Pevonedistat as a second-line therapy in melanoma. Resistance is one of the primary challenges in the cancer field. The problem with most anti-tumor drugs is that many patients treated with targeted therapy end up experiencing recurrence at some point with more malignant tumors that are difficult to overcome with current therapies. Therefore, identifying a safe single agent or drug combination that overcomes this acquired resistance will have a significant therapeutic impact in the cancer field and in the clinic. With the help of my mentor, lab members, and collaborators, I will try to design a series of experiments that address these questions and hope for the best!
January 25, 2017