Inspirational Muslims from around the world have been doing their part in giving back to the community. From the amazing front-liners who have helped to fight COVID-19 to the Muslim community who are contributing to COVID-19 relief efforts, everyone from all walks of life is doing all they can to make the world a better place.
As inspiring as the rest, Dr Noor Faezzah Baharom, a Singaporean Muslimah and post-doctoral fellow in the National Institutes of Health is developing a cancer vaccine in the United States, which is set to begin its first phase of clinical trials next year. Taking the time out of her busy schedule, we chatted with Dr Noor Faezzah Baharom about her career in medical research and how close we are to finding a cancer vaccine in this lifetime.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
My name is Faezzah. I grew up in Singapore with my parents, an elder sister and a younger brother. In junior college, biology was my favourite subject. I had a really inspiring teacher, Mr Loo, who made difficult concepts easy to understand. After my A levels, I studied at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) for my BSc in Biological Sciences. While at NTU, I had the opportunity to travel abroad as an exchange student.
In 2011, I moved to Sweden and fell in love with the Nordic style of life and education. I stayed on for my PhD at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. There, I worked on understanding how the immune response is initiated when a person has a respiratory viral infection. To do that, we collected lung samples from patients and healthy volunteers.
What motivated you to pursue a career in medical research?
I felt like I had the right personality for this career: I am naturally curious and have always needed to understand how things work. Medical research offers the opportunity to serve society by increasing our knowledge of diseases and hopefully translating that into important clinical therapeutics or diagnostics. Cancer has become a personal topic of interest to me due to my father’s experience in battling the disease.
Has your faith ever been an obstacle in pursuing a career in the medical field?
In short, no. In the research field, you are valued for your contributions to science and medicine. It is a very diverse and international environment, where our differences are welcomed and sometimes even an asset. I often think about the many Islamic scholars throughout history (e.g. Ibn Sina) who have been instrumental in shaping modern medicine. In terms of living, Stockholm and Washington, D.C. are both cities with Muslim communities, ensuring that there are mosques and halal eateries.
How has your journey been like working as a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)?
In 2017, I moved to Washington D.C. to work for the NIH. The work here is challenging and occurs at a fast pace. People are very motivated and want to produce high quality, rigorous work. I’ve worked on developing a personalized cancer vaccine and evaluating how to get the best immune response required to fight cancer.
What led you to develop a cancer vaccine at the National Institutes of Health?
Vaccines are often used in the context of fighting infectious diseases. Traditional vaccines use a weakened, killed or fragments of a virus, for example, to train the immune system to be able to recognize and kill when the real virus infects a person.
Cancers are trickier because it is technically your own self. However, cancers happen because mutations occur to change a normal cell into a mutant cell that cannot stop dividing. This provides an opportunity to target tumour-specific mutations so that the immune system can be trained to only kill the tumour and not healthy cells. This approach is quite different from conventional therapeutics like chemotherapy or radiation therapy that kills all dividing cells, resulting in painful side effects.
In an interview with The Straits Times, the cancer vaccine you worked on will begin its first phase of clinical trials next year. How is this cancer vaccine different from the other vaccines developed in the past?
This is a very novel field and there are currently no FDA-approved cancer vaccines targeting cancer therapeutically. There are however preventive (prophylactic) vaccines targeting human papillomavirus (HPV) that effectively protects against cervical cancer, as well as the hepatitis B vaccine that protects against liver cancer.
In terms of immunotherapies, checkpoint blockade antibodies (e.g. anti-PD-1, nivolumab) are used in the clinic against various cancers as a way to reactivate exhausted T cells. We hope to use our cancer vaccine in combination with checkpoint blockade antibodies.
After the first phase of clinical trials, what are the next steps before the cancer vaccine is approved?
The focus of a phase I trial is to assess safety. The next step would be to test the efficacy and would require the inclusion of more patients. There are two key measures of success: (1) Can the vaccine generate an immune response in these patients? And (2) Can the immune response generated be sufficient to mediate tumour regression (i.e. reduce tumour size) or extend the patients’ survival?
Do you feel our generation is closer to finding an effective cancer vaccine in this lifetime?
There has been some promising work in melanoma (skin cancer) and glioblastoma (brain cancer) in recent years using other vaccine platforms. I think as a scientific community, we are trying to figure out how to improve the efficacy of cancer vaccines.
We recently published in Nature Immunology results of our work where we show that by changing the way the vaccine is delivered i.e. directly into the bloodstream by intravenous injection rather than into the skin or muscle, we can generate cytotoxic T cells (soldiers of the immune system) that retain an ability to proliferate to large numbers. This is important to ensure durable responses, especially in the context of cancer where tumour cells may persist.
What other vaccines that you hope to develop in the future?
Personalized cancer vaccines would hopefully be applicable to different types of cancers. Depending on the degree of mutation, some cancers such as skin cancer are more likely to trigger an immune response whereas cancers such as colon and prostate cancer are more difficult to treat. My hope is that we can eventually treat difficult cancers too.
Any tips for others who want to pursue a career in medical research?
Medical research requires dedication and discipline. It can often be frustrating as you will probably fail many times before finding something that works. It is important to understand that failing is part of the process when you are testing scientific hypotheses. Finding a good research environment where your team keeps you motivated and inspired is important.
It's inspiring to see everyone from all walks of life doing their part to make the world a better place. For more inspirational stories like these, check out our recommended reads for a dose of feel-good vibes.
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