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Establishing lifelong connections, building a new lab, and repurposing therapeutics

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From a post-doctoral researcher making the transition into an assistant professor

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Abdelrahman “Abdel” Fouda officially launched his long-term academic career as an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (Little Rock, Arkansas) in the middle of July 2021. Since then, Abdel has been converting an empty lab with just the structural bare-bones basics, recruiting research technicians and postdoctoral fellows, preparing manuscripts based on past research, and writing grants to fund future projects. He has learned that ordering equipment for delivery in a week or a month might not be realistic, as it might take three to four months. Plastics and pipette tips may be on backorder or out of stock. Open positions in his lab are also proving to be as difficult to fill as it is for any open positions in his university (or anywhere else). He admits that the breadth of these new responsibilities is challenging, especially within the context of pandemic-related global supply chain and labor shortages, but it is also an exciting start as a principal investigator. While progress feels slow, it is forward progress.

“My elder sister is a medical doctor, but I thought that developing new therapies someday would be a better fit for me. Today, when I describe what I do, I tell people that I investigate new therapies for the treatment of ischemic brain and retinal diseases, like stroke and diabetic retinopathy, using animal models and human samples.”

At Cairo University (Cairo, Egypt), Abdel earned a Bachelor of Pharmaceutical Sciences degree in their school of pharmacy and graduated at the top of his class of 1,500 students. He was recruited to work as one of the first teaching and research assistants in their Clinical Pharmacy Department, new at the time, and worked in that role for four years. As he studied master’s level classes, he realized that pursuing research in Egypt at that time would be difficult and instead decided to pursue his PhD in the US. Armed with strong test scores, he applied to a variety of schools in Utah, Iowa, and California, but ended up in Augusta, Georgia after considering his aspirations for a program that had clinical and research aspects, the academic needs of his wife (also a scientist), the cost of living, and other aspects of life. He thinks that they made an excellent choice. Being able to find Egyptian friends helped make the transition better and the city of Augusta was small enough to navigate easily. Plus, the graduate program at the University of Georgia, where he earned his PhD in Clinical and Experimental Therapeutics, and his academic mentors were supportive.

“Coming with a pharmacy degree doesn’t mean that you can work in the US as a pharmacist—until you pass an equivalency exam and other requirements. So, although it is difficult to be able to work on clinical projects, my mentor was a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) and the Assistant Dean of the school, so she was able to provide a tremendous amount of support to help break down barriers for me.”

He stayed in Augusta for his postdoctoral research in vascular biology (retinopathy research), intending to repurpose existing drugs for secondary uses. For example, if a safe antihypertensive drug like a sartan or an antibiotic like minocycline would prove to be neuroprotective in a stroke event, that could prove to be a promising type of repurposing. Since the hypertension drugs already in the market would have been evaluated on patients and proven safe in the drug development and post-market safety testing phases, drug repositioning could reduce the risks, costs, and timelines of research and development, resulting in a shorter pathway to help patients.

“My postdoctoral fellowship, working in retinopathy, was a change, but since the retina is a part of the central nervous system (CNS), it wasn’t that different. Specifically, I was studying the interaction of immune cells in macrophages recruited from the circulation after injury and resident microglia with the neurons and the neurovascular unit, either in the retina or in the brain. My goal was to find a way to preserve the neurons after interrupted blood flow (ischemic insult).”

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Figure 1: Adult mouse retina flat-mount expressing tdTomato (red) under LysM cre promoter and immunolabelled for chat (green) and parvalbumin (Grey). Mounted in VECTASHIELD® Mounting Medium.

The retina and the brain are considered immune-privileged organs because they have their own blood-brain barrier to regulate what can reach them. Abdel uses imaging techniques to show the interactions of macrophages and microglia with the neurons and relies on VECTASHIELD® Antifade Mounting Medium with DAPI as a mounting medium. He prefers to use human samples (ethically harvested during surgery or other procedures) whenever possible. He has learned that while a conclusion posed in a publication based on an animal model or in vitro cell culture might seem promising, it doesn’t always translate directly or identically to the mechanisms seen in humans. He is most interested in therapeutics or drugs that can be repurposed in humans, which aligns directly with his pharmacotherapeutic interests. An offshoot of his postdoctoral work is a pending patent for pegylated arginase I, currently used to treat cancers, but now repurposed as a therapeutic for retina and brain conditions involving ischemia.

“Given the theoretical opportunity to talk with an expert about anything, I’d want to talk about my science and the ideas I’m working on, looking for their validation and advice. Since I am at the early phase of my career, I have big ideas that excite me, so I would like to have someone with experience and awareness of what others in the field have done provide opinions and allow me to learn from them. I’d want to hear how they built up their lab, their own niche, and apply what fits to my plan. I’m hoping to have a big lab with a PhD student and a couple of postdocs and maybe be a full professor in about 10 years.”

What Abdel has found to be most rewarding has been being able to work within a successful team. It was important to have an active and caring mentor from whom he could learn, and in turn, to give back by mentoring others. It has been somewhat difficult to separate from his mentor as he moves into the next phase of his career, having less of his former mentor’s support and safety net. But he has learned to make good connections beyond direct mentors and advisors by reaching out to others in his department, university, and field of interest, even though the introvert in him sometimes finds reaching out to talk to others trying. When it comes to mentoring others in his lab and field, Abdel plans to use known methods to help them build up the confidence needed to succeed in their scientific career and help ensure their success by providing positive initial experiences like assigning them to a project that he knows is working or an experiment that will contribute to a publication. His students will benefit from this mentoring style and further his goals of repurposing therapeutics to multiple uses.

author avatar
Edna M. Kunkel