2022 BRIght Futures Prize Winner Envisions a New Way to Bring the Power of Nanomedicine to Bear on Cancer
Ahmed Elzoghby, PhD, has interests spanning many worlds. His background and training are in material science and pharmaceutical formulation, but he has become increasingly interested in cancer biology. He has been a pharmacy student, a researcher, a lecturer and an advocate for the next generation of scientists. Now, Elzoghby can add another distinction to this list: winner of the BRIght Futures Prize.
Perhaps most importantly, Elzoghby is both a respected scientist and a loving father. Before he became a finalist in the BRIght Futures Prize competition — which requires research scientists to explain their work in a way that makes it accessible and engaging to the public — Elzoghby already had experience sharing his research with a curious but not scientifically-trained audience. When she was very young, his daughter Maya, who is now 12 years old, would ask her father and mother about what they did as postdoctoral fellows in the lab of Shiladitya Sengupta, PhD.
“She was so curious to hear us talk about nanomedicine,” said Elzoghby. “My daughter has always been interested in what we do, and I love explaining my work to her. I’d love for all children to talk about and learn about science from scientists.”
Elzoghby had the opportunity to share his work with thousands of people all over the world thanks to the BRIght Futures Prize competition—and with a little help from Maya. Now, he will use the $100,000 prize to help bring a new, nanomedicine-powered idea closer to treatment for cancer.
Inspired by Medicine
Since middle school, Elzoghby has been interested in medicine and the way medications interact with the body and with one another. He thought he would follow in his older brother’s footsteps and become a pharmacist. But after graduating with a degree in pharmaceutical sciences and joining the faculty at Alexandria University as a teaching assistant, Elzoghby became increasingly interested in using nanomedicine for drug delivery. Nanomedicine uses the tools of nanotechnology to package and deliver drugs and therapies on the nanoscale.
Cancer soon became a focus for Elzoghby.
“After seeing friends of mine and one my students pass away from cancer, I wanted to work on developing new therapies that could have less off-target toxicity than conventional therapies and be used for cancers that are especially difficult to treat,” he said.
In 2012, Elzoghby earned his PhD from Alexandria University and began applying for grants to start his lab in Egypt. In 2014, he established the “Cancer Nanotechnology Research Laboratory – CNEL” at Faculty of Pharmacy, Alexandria University to be the first laboratory specialized in development of tumor-targeted nanomedicine in Egypt. In 2018, he received a Fulbright Scholarship and came to the Brigham and Harvard Medical School as a postdoctoral research fellow.
“That was a turning point for me,” he said. “My background was in materials science and nanomedicine fabrication, but when I came to the Brigham and to Harvard, I found myself more and more interested in cancer immunotherapy using nanomedicine for drug delivery.”
When Elzoghby joined Sengupta’s lab, Sengupta advised him to focus on biology and immunotherapy.
“Shiladit changed my mind and set me on the path I’m on today,” said Elzoghby. “I started to think about how to integrate drug delivery and immunology. And I started to read about stromal fibroblasts and how to reprogram the tumor microenvironment using immuno-engineering tools particularly nanomedicine.”
“Dr. Elzoghby’s work can transform cancer medicine by removing the barriers that limit the potential of current drugs. Ahmed is an example of a scientist who has overcome barriers in his life and has flourished in the Brigham ecosystem,” said Sengupta.
Changing Fibroblasts from Cancer Friend to Foe
Fibroblasts—fibrous cells that form connective tissue—are especially abundant around some types of tumors, including pancreatic cancers. According to Elzoghby, these cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) may act like a shield, protecting pancreatic cancer cells in the tumor core from the effects of immunotherapy.
“We think CAFs play a major role in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma resistance to immunotherapy,” he said. “We want to exploit CAFs, transforming them into factories that will produce cancer killing machinery.”
Elzoghby’s bold idea is to design lipid nanoparticles — similar to the lipid shells used in mRNA vaccines — loaded with DNA that can target and genetically reprogram CAFs to change the cargo/content of their exosomes. If the CAFs can be used as factories to churn out cancer-killing exosomes, they may be able to transform them from cancer cells’ friends into foes. Here, Mahmoud Nasr, PhD, of the Renal Division, who is Elzoghby’s current mentor at the Brigham, contributed to the idea by designing the DNA construct of an exosomal fusion protein to help genetic engineering of CAFs.
“Ahmed is one of the most dedicated and perseverant scientists I have had the pleasure to work with. His proposal is innovative and, if successful, will have a high impact in the battle against cancer,” said Nasr.
The idea is exciting but untested, making it a great fit for the BRIght Futures Prize competition, which is designed to catalyze innovative research only possible at an academic medical center. Like all research funding from the Brigham Research Institute, projects are vetted by scientific reviewers. But for BRIght Futures, reviewers select three projects as finalists. For the prize’s final stage, the winner is determined by public vote.
Not long after his project was selected to compete in the final stage, Elzoghby returned to Egypt for vacation and shared the exciting news about his selection with former and current students at School of Pharmacy, Alexandria University.
“I was honored to be selected as a finalist, and they were so excited too,” he said.
The students offered to help him prepare posters and promotional materials and to use social media platforms to spread the word and get out the vote.
Elzoghby also turned to Maya for her help. As part of this year’s Cambridge Science Festival, all three BRIght Futures Prize finalists were invited to record a video in which they explained their project to a student. Elzoghby asked his daughter to be his interviewer.
More than 600 people registered to tune in on Oct. 7 to watch the video interviews, participate in a Q&A with the finalists and hear the announcement of this year’s winner.
When Elzoghby found out he had won, he was overwhelmed with gratitude for all those who had voted in the competition, to his mentors and to his friends and his family.
“I promise, I will keep going on my way to fight cancer using advanced technologies and nanomedicine,” he said. “Thank you all for giving me this great opportunity.”
Maya, who was side by side with her dad watching the event, expressed her pride in her father’s accomplishment.
“I’m very proud of my dad and I hope I can be like him in the future,” she said. “He’s my role model. I’m so proud of my dad right now!”