Srinagar-born scientist, Dr Hanief Shahjee, provides insights into his research journey in chemistry, encompassing his PhD in bio-sciences and Post Doc in molecular biology and cancer, with applications in the expansive pharmaceutical sector. Presently serving as the Principal Scientist at Ocugen Inc, an American biotech company committed to patient care, Dr Shahjee details the contributions he made to the field of cancer biology.
KASHMIR LIFE (KL): Can you provide insights into the significant milestones and valuable learning experiences you encountered throughout your educational journey?
DR HANIEF SHAHJEE (DHS): From the outset, my educational path led me towards medical sciences. I completed my schooling at Green Land, Hawal, and obtained my Bachelor’s degree from Islamia College, Srinagar. I pursued a Master’s degree in Biochemistry from the University of Kashmir. While I aspired to study abroad, I faced numerous challenges and obstacles that hindered my plans. Despite my attempts to pursue a PhD in the US circumstances did not align. Subsequently, I pursued a PhD in Bio-sciences from the Jamia Milia, Delhi, with a primary focus on protein biochemistry.
Yearning to explore additional fields such as molecular biology and cancer research, I was fortunate to secure a post-doctoral fellowship opportunity in the United States. This transition posed a significant challenge as I shifted from my previous work to the realm of molecular biology – an entirely new experience and subject matter for me. With unwavering dedication and passion, I persevered, resulting in the publication of numerous papers on molecular biology and cancer-related topics.
During this period, I applied for numerous positions to establish a stable career, eventually obtaining a worker’s visa. Over time, I obtained my green card and officially became a US citizen. With these accomplishments, I seized the opportunity to work in the industry, focusing on immunology, cell therapy, and gene therapy. Presently, I continue to delve into these areas of research.
KL: What was the main focus of your PhD?
DHS: During my PhD, I focused on protein biochemistry. The primary investigation revolved around the process of protein unfolding and the role of stabilisers and molecular chaperones in facilitating protein stabilisation and renaturation. We examined different types of proteins and utilised various polyhydric alcohols and amino acids to determine suitable molecular chaperones that can prevent protein denaturation. Denaturation can occur due to factors like heat stress, salt stress, and oxidation, leading to the degradation of protein structure.
We aimed to identify molecules and stabilisers that could resist these detrimental effects. This research was fundamental and not directly therapeutic. Subsequently, I shifted my focus to other fields, particularly molecular biology.
KL: What were the major findings from your research in molecular biology?
DHS: Molecular biology has always been an area of keen interest for me, with a specific focus on cancer biology. I embarked on my research journey by studying prostate cancer. Cancer, in general, has been a fascinating subject due to the extensive research conducted on it and its wide-ranging applications in both basic research and industry. There is ongoing progressive work in various types of cancers, including prostate, bladder, breast, and others.
Through research, certain molecules have been identified and found to be beneficial in cancer treatment. However, these studies primarily remain confined to academic publications, with potential industrial applications.
During my time at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I was recognised as a cancer biologist, devoting five years to prostate cancer research and two years to bladder cancer. The knowledge and experience gained from academia opened doors to numerous opportunities in the industry.
KL: What are the existing obstacles and prospective objectives in tackling the cancer crisis?
DHS: Cancer research has always been multifaceted, with ongoing medical investigations. In terms of basic research, there exists a plethora of molecules and drugs that can be harnessed to combat cancer to some extent. My focus has been on prostate cancer cells and insulin-like growth factor (IGF), also known as somatomedin. IGF-binding proteins found within the system can block IGF, thereby impeding cancer growth.
I have also explored the necessity of IGF and alternative ways to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Additionally, I have delved into the realm of bladder cancer.
KL: Some of your research projects have gained huge attention and are being considered for implementation. Can you share something about that?
DHS: Yes, the research I conducted was groundbreaking. Before our study, there was a limited exploration of the role of insulin-like growth factor (IGF) in prostate cancer. Our published findings demonstrated that the insulin-like growth factor binding protein not only blocks IGF but also hinders cancer growth through various mechanisms.
We investigated the involvement of different molecules and their contribution to preventing cancer spread and inhibiting the enlargement of cancer cells. Our research established that this protein has the potential to prevent cancer beyond its binding action with IGF. The molecule we examined as a potential drug showed promising results in preventing prostate cancer. Currently, it is undergoing industry evaluation for safety and efficacy before potential approval.
KL: In your opinion, can genome editing serve as a potential approach to address the cancer crisis?
DHS: Currently, my focus is on virology, specifically studying different types of viruses associated with genetic defects. Gene mutations play a significant role in various diseases, including eye diseases, which are being explored for gene therapy programmes aimed at rectifying these mutations.
Correcting gene mutations and reintroducing them into cells is a potential method for rectification. Gene therapy research has been flourishing since 2015, with considerable efforts directed towards correcting genes using technologies such as CRISPR and gene knockdown via siRNA. These approaches hold promise for gene therapy in a wide range of diseases.
KF: What was your experience during the Covid19 crisis?
DHS: The onset of the Covid19 pandemic took the world by surprise. At the time, there was no immediate cure for the virus, which is the case with many diseases caused by viruses. In the US, an annual flu vaccine drive is conducted to prevent flu outbreaks, as there had been instances of multiple deaths due to flu, surpassing the impact of Covid19. This led to the annual flu vaccine becoming mandatory. However, initially, people were hesitant and resistant towards the Covid19 vaccine.
Doctors and scientists needed to stress the importance of precautions, considering the high transmission rate and contagious nature of the virus. Unfortunately, some individuals held the belief that the virus would simply disappear with time, leading to the emergence of various mutations due to low vaccination rates. Consequently, variant-specific vaccines became necessary. Fortunately, with the availability and administration of several vaccines, the situation is now relatively under control.
During the shutdown, most work had to be conducted online, including research meetings. We implemented shifts in the laboratories to maintain a semblance of continuity in the research process, but the overall productivity was significantly affected compared to our usual routine.
KL: Do you anticipate a greater vulnerability to viruses and bacteria in the future?
DHS: Extensive research has been conducted on various aspects of viruses, bacteria, developmental disabilities, neurological diseases, and cancer biology. Significant progress has been made in the development of molecular antibodies and drugs for cancers such as multiple myeloma, which have been approved by the FDA for commercial use. However, the challenge lies in achieving complete remission of cancer cells.
In virology, gene therapy is being pursued, with the use of lentiviruses and Car T therapy for certain conditions. However, these approaches come with significant side effects. To address this, Adeno-associated viruses (AAV) are being explored as a safer alternative that does not integrate with the host genome. Gene therapy has shown some success in treating various diseases.
It is important to acknowledge that there is no definitive method or guaranteed way to control these disorders, and we remain uncertain about what the future holds. Our ongoing research and extensive studies in these areas are vital, as there is no end to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding in these fields.
KL: What kind of research is currently underway in your field?
DHS: Over time, I have been involved in training individuals in various experimental techniques and essay writing. Our current research endeavours encompass vaccines, gene therapies, and cell therapies, as well as exploring treatments for conditions like knee injuries and cartilage defects, which can be addressed through the implantation of new cartilage. Several clinical trials are underway in these areas, but it may take years to complete and gain approval.
(Umaima Reshi processed the interview)