COVID-19 Researcher Spotlight: Interview with Dr. Yousef Salama
"There have been many moments where I have felt like giving up when despite all my efforts, I could not see any tangible results. But I have not given up and I hope that other researchers who may be in similar circumstances will not give up at all.” Dr. Yousef Salama said.
Researchers all across An-Najah National University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences are working toward advancing knowledge and creating solutions to critical health diseases on both local and global scales. These researchers work to find ways to address these critical illnesses.
Dr. Yousef Salama is one of An-Najah University’s most accomplished and passionate researchers who brings new insights to disease through research.
Dr. Salama is an assistant professor at An-Najah University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Science, Division of Anatomy, Biochemistry & Genetics, and director of An-Najah Center for Cancer and Stem Cell Research. His research and teaching focuses on stem cells, including Hematopoiesis (Normal/Malignant), Epigenetics, and Molecular cancer genomics. He has also conducted research related to cancer therapy targeting the fibrinolytic system, the role of mesenchymal stem cell-derived fibrinolytic factor in tissue regeneration and cancer progression, and many other types of research on different vital topics.
An-Najah Center for Cancer and Stem Cell Research
An-Najah Center for Cancer and Stem Cell Research focuses on doing different fields of research about cancer and stem cells. It conducts basic, translational, and clinical research to develop novel drugs to make the body kill cancer and to develop optimal conditions to regrow, repair or replace damaged or diseased cells, organs, or tissues.
“Hard work, patience, ingenuity, careful planning, and significant investments of time and resources are the key success factors of An-Najah Center for Cancer and Stem Cell Research. Capitalizing on these investments requires looking back at how far we have come and looking forward to identifying the areas in which we can do our best work.” Dr. Salama said.
The Center has made and continues to make, critical advances in the understanding of the mechanism of diseases as these are the basis of sound medical practice.
It conducts basic, translational, and clinical research on genetics, semiology, cancer, cancer genomics, and many other different fields of research that test promising discoveries, to development of novel therapies and prevention approaches to different diseases.
Dr. Salama works in cooperation with clinicians, and surgeons from An-Najah Teaching Hospital, which includes different departments that receive patients with different diseases such as heart disease (CVD), chronic kidney disease (CKD), and cancer disease to provide the Center with the needed samples to do research and study these diseases in vitro and in vivo (mice and human samples).
Research Focus Has Shifted to COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has driven all researchers around the world to find vaccines and treatments that will work effectively against SARS-CoV-2.
With no approved treatments for COVID-19, the Center has joined several other medical centers and international partners around the world in global trials to identify drugs that may be effective treatments for people infected with the coronavirus.
Working at a breakneck pace, a team of researchers led by Dr. Salama has identified drugs that may be effective treatments for people infected with the coronavirus. Many of the candidate drugs are already approved to treat diseases, and they are cheap and available in all pharmacies in Palestine
There is no antiviral drug proven to be effective against the virus. When people get infected, the best that doctors can offer is supportive care, the patient is getting enough oxygen, managing fever, and using a ventilator to push air into the lungs if needed to give the immune system time to fight the infection.
Coronavirus and Human Genetics: Why Do Cases of COVID-19 Vary?
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a pandemic that has been difficult to control. For example, Palestinian patients who carry the virus may be asymptomatic, or have moderate to severe coughing, fever, or shortness of breath. In more severe cases, complications can include acute respiratory distress syndrome, septic shock, and death. On the contrary, other patients who carry the virus in Japan for instance may suffer less severe COVID-19 symptoms.
Dr. Salama said: “Some young, healthy people experience very severe illness when they get COVID-19 for reasons that are not yet known. Severe responses to coronavirus infection could be caused by genetic differences among different groups of populations. Exploring coronavirus and human genetics could reveal important insights.”
He added: “We at the Center studied and analyzed several human genetic factors associated with susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 infection and COVID-19 disease severity. Human genetic factors contribute to the observed diversified disease severity. Therefore, we deemed it prudent to review the associations between specific human genetic variants and clinical disease severity or susceptibility to infection. We have mapped the human proteins that the coronavirus interacts with and identified existing drugs that may prove effective against it.”
In Palestine, genetics is very important because the rate of consanguine marriage is very high. Thus, the genetic variations among Palestinians are very high and the prevalence of diseases also is very high. If we understand our genes we do not only help Palestinians to find treatment for covid19 but also we help the whole world to do so. If we understand our genetic variations and Japanese were also able to understand their genetic variations, and the Europeans were also able to do so (understand their ethnicity), then we will be able to understand why some populations and ethnic groups are more likely to be affected by COVID-19 and to develop severe symptoms and also show significantly higher mortality compared with other regional and ethnic groups.
Why some populations and ethnic groups are more likely to be affected by COVID-19 and to develop severe symptoms and also show significantly higher mortality compared with other regional and ethnic groups?
Genetics is very important not only in understanding the cause of a disease but also in recognizing how an individual responds to particular therapies and drugs. The genetic variation within populations plays a vital role in the development of diseases. Differences in the frequency of genes in various population groups must be considered among the factors contributing to health disparities in the development of COVID-19.
There are higher proportions of various population groups that are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Race, ethnicity, and genetic factors play a critical role in the health disparities among populations concerning the response to covid19.
“The Center studies genetics and since the virus has genetic material and genes, we studied this virus, its genes, and we did analysis and research on how do people get infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the structure of covid19, and what is the phenotype of the virus.” Dr. Salam pointed out.
This was done in collaboration with the Palestinian Ministry of Health as it has the required data about the patients and the required DNA samples to do research.
What is the Role of An-Najah University in Supporting Research?
“Despite the significant upheaval caused by coronavirus, the University has continued to perform its vital role of delivering world-class teaching and supporting research and researchers. It offered the Center financial aid to do our research, in recognition of the vital contribution that the Center makes to our diverse research environment and to ensure our continued growth and success through innovative research projects.” Dr. Salama answered.
The University has always been committed to convening and nurturing a diverse community of professors and individuals dedicated to promoting excellence and leadership in medicine and science through education and research. It provides a huge range of support for research staff.” He added.
“In the absence of a pan-specific coronavirus drug, or a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, the next most useful way to combat it would be the effective repurposing of approved drugs by FDA." Dr. Salam pointed out.
He said: “We recommended some drugs that could prevent COVID-19 replication and we communicated with the Palestinian MOH and showed them our research results.”
“We are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is more critical than ever that we can band together to combat this pandemic. The virus is dangerous, but together we can slow the spread and protect those we love, and those who are always on the front lines,” explained Dr. Salama. “We can make a difference in our community if we all work together to follow the prevention procedures and guidance of medical authorities and experts.”
Dr. Salama thanked An-Najah University for its continuous support, expressing his gratitude to the Higher Council for Innovation and Excellence for supporting his research through offering him a grant to continue his research.
Dr. Salama concluded: “I will never give up and will always focus on doing research that will be targeted to those areas of pursuit that show greatest promise. The new development will promote the most compelling interventions based on evidence emerging from that discovery. I will always deliver evidence-based interventions and they will be universal to benefit my country and the whole world.”