The World Cancer Research Fund International 2020 report says the cancer is the twelfth most common cancer worldwide
As scientists around the world race to find a cure for cancer, UAE-based Dr Raefa Abou Khouzam’s work among them stands out. The Lebanese researcher and assistant professor at the Gulf Medical University in Ajman has been honoured with the title of being one of the five trailblazing Arab female scientists from the GCC for the prestigious L’Oreal – Unesco for women in science young talents regional programme for making a notable research contribution to counter pancreatic cancer.
“The recognition is empowering as it validates my work, efforts, and passion for science. It highlights the cause of finding better treatment options for pancreatic cancer patients. This award further acknowledges the efforts of the institutes, Thumbay Research Institute for Precision Medicine (TRIPM), Gulf Medical University (GMU), and the research team and collaborators who have been integral to the success of my journey so far,” an elated Dr Raefa said on winning the title.
Improving cancer patient outcomes
Based on her study, Dr Raefa elaborated, according to the World Cancer Research Fund International 2020 report, pancreatic cancer is rated the twelfth most common cancer worldwide in men and the eleventh most common cancer in women.
“The 5-year survival rate of patients suffering from this disease can be as low as 2.9 percent. Therefore, enhanced treatment strategies are required to improve patient outcomes. Up to 90 per cent of tumours arise from a mutation in the oncogene KRAS. The mutation leads to this protein’s continuous activation, which enables cells to proliferate uncontrollably and become cancerous.”
“Another key player in the tumorigenesis of pancreatic cancer is hypoxia, or low oxygen, in the tumour microenvironment. My study reveals that hypoxia is associated with worse patient survival and we are working on a novel strategy to counter pancreatic cancer by simultaneously targeting KRAS and counteracting hypoxia.”
Dr Raefa’s research adds to the existing knowledge base of pancreatic cancer. “Any new information leading to a better understanding or treating this disease could one day make a big difference in the life of anyone fighting pancreatic cancer. The ultimate goal is to extend the lives of patients suffering from this disease,” said the scientist.
“In this setting, a model system that can capture the intricacies of a pancreatic tumour and act as a platform for assessing the success of various treatment modalities could be transformative for patients and public health institutions alike,” added Dr Raefa.
From curious student to research scientist
Born and raised in Lebanon, her early display of enthusiasm for discovering the unknowns and finding solutions led Dr Raefa to a career in scientific research.
“I found comfort in science books that dealt with a human body, and consequently reading about how questions can be researched and answered in logical ways with scientific evidence shaped my journey in life and gave me the space to be myself,” she said.
Her ambition of becoming a scientist started with earning a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a master’s in Cancer Biology from the Lebanese University. She believes that the best approach to promote and maintain the health and well-being of individuals and communities is to detect, diagnose and treat cancers earlier and target prevention measures to those most at risk.
“I was fortunate enough to win an Erasmus Mundus Dunia Beam scholarship to do my Ph.D. in Genetics, Molecular, and Cellular Biology, at the University of Pavia in Italy for three years,” Dr Raefa said.
Post-completion of the doctorate program, Dr Raefa was awarded a one-year post-doctoral fellowship at the Institute of Molecular Genetics-National Research Council (IGM-CNR) in Italy.
“Then, I started my journey in the UAE and started work at the Thumbay Research Institute of Precision Medicine at the Gulf Medical University, where I have been working for the last four years as an assistant professor.”
Coming to the UAE, Dr Raefa had little expectations of being a part of an advanced and impactful research team. “I was determined to make a difference, and research is one of those fields that has a greater impact on improving people’s lives. I was lucky to be able to participate in the scientific growth of the UAE and the region, which is very dear to my heart.”
What lies ahead?
Her goal is to contribute knowledge that can directly make a difference in the lives of cancer patients or at least be used as a stepping stone by other scientists to do the same. “Being an assistant professor and an invested researcher means working with students daily. In my profession, we get to transfer our passion for research, discovery, and innovation, creating the next wave of scientists,” said Dr Raefa.
“Through this platform and initiative, I hope to inspire other women to pursue a career in science and to carry forth discovery and innovation in the Arab world,” concluded Dr Raefa.
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