‘There’s a strong need for scientifically-sound journalists’: Talkathon with Dr. Shabir Hassan

[Photo: YouTube/DAF.]

Dr. Shabir Hassan is an Assistant Professor of Biology. Before joining Khalifa, he was an Early Career Investigator at Harvard Medical School and Associate Bioengineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, USA. His main focus of research has been devising in vitro platforms of diseases such as cancer and different tissues for drug discovery and drug delivery applications. Additionally, his interest revolves around 3D bioprinting of disease models to study genetic and rare diseases. He has an immense interest in bioimaging platforms such as mini-optical tomographic systems for studying 3D in vitro lab models.

During his PhD, Dr. Hassan developed novel nano- and micro-materials conjugated with proteins to study their folding and aggregation kinetics, and their photothermal effects for cancer therapy.

He has won many awards for his academic and research excellence. Some notable ones include Certificate of Merit for academic excellence from University of Kashmir, Department of Biotechnology Fellowship from the Government of India, Endeavour Award from the Australian Government, two consecutive awards in Early and Advanced Mobility grant categories from the Swiss National Science Foundation for his scientific endeavours at Brigham and Women’s Hospital of Harvard Medical School, and the University of Twente, Netherlands, as a collaborating Institution. In 2019, he was awarded Excellence in Mentorship from Harvard Medical School/BWH. 

Dr. Hassan has published more than 45 research papers in international journals of repute. His developed mini microscope was recognised as one of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Hot Paper. He has also been instrumental for innovations in fabricating 3D self-oxygenating artificial tissues for implants in volumetric tissue losses and has delivered numerous talks including one as a resource person for the innovations in frugal imagers studying in vitro disease models at the Ramon Cajal painting exhibition in MIT museum in 2018.

Dr. Hassan serves as an Associate Editor for Frontiers in Biomaterials Science and as Founding Associate Editor for MIT Science Policy Review (MIT, USA) in 2020. Additionally, he edits special issues for Polymers (MDPI), Frontiers in Pharmacology, etc. Following is an edited excerpt of his exclusive chat with Free Press Kashmir.


Dr. Shabir, before we delve into your research, can you share with us the early inspirations or pivotal moments that set you on your journey from an Early Career Investigator at Harvard Medical School to an independent Group Leader at Khalifa University?

I feel myself honoured to be amongst few chosen people who are lucky to be trained at world class institutes such as Harvard and MIT. The enthusiasm, the ideas, the work ethics, the challenges, the out-of-the-box yet simple solutions, I have witnessed most of it. Joining as a postdoctoral researcher at HST of Harvard-MIT and eventually as a faculty member at Harvard Medical School as an Early-stage Investigator has truly been a remarkable, yet humbling journey. I cannot be enough thankful to God for providing me these opportunities. One of the important aspects of scientific endeavour is to embrace new challenges and work towards novel solutions. I got an opportunity to be part of the team at Khalifa University to develop a world class research program and facility in biological research. I took up the challenge.


Childhood passions often shape our future endeavours. Can you take us back to a pivotal memory or an influential figure who sowed the seeds of curiosity within you, ultimately leading you to where you are today?

I cannot pin down a single memory of my childhood that may have helped build my scientific curiosity. Numerical Problems in Physics by K.C. Jain (1979 edition) was a book that my father had studied in his pre-college years. My father, who happened to be my teacher as well until my senior high school, would teach and help me solve this book in my 8th and 9th standard. I was fascinated by Newtonian Physics, especially the problems on gravity and gravitational forces. In my senior high school, I got a chance to read Physics by Resnik, Halliday, and Walker, What is Life by E. Schrondinger, Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman, and eventually Feynman’s Lectures. All these experiences and readings helped me build my curiosity in science. I was drawn mainly towards Physics and may be that explains why I switched over from molecular biology to experimental physics in my PhD. Applying the knowledge of chemistry from my BSc., Biology from my MSc. and Physics from my PhD, I chose to continue my research in an interdisciplinary field with a strong translational potential.


3D bioprinting/Bioengineering has the potential to revolutionise organ transplantation and regenerative medicine. Your work has made significant strides in advancing these fields. How do you envision this transformative technology shaping the future of healthcare, and what key milestones can we expect to witness?

I think we are living in interesting times. While interdisciplinary research has been at the forefront of breaking ceilings in science such as AI is redefining different aspects of healthcare such as diagnostics and drug discovery, I strongly believe fields like bioengineering, 3D bioprinting, and 3D tissue engineering have immense potential in lowering the burden of organ transplantation, regenerative medicine, pathology, and pathophysiology. There is no doubt that animal research has been a strong pillar in our discoveries and research in general understanding important diseases, their pathways, and drug discovery; however, the fact that other animals are contrastingly different in their biology at genome level (inter-genome variability) to humans is both frightening and fascinating. While this explains why almost 90% of the drugs fail in clinical trials on humans that otherwise ideally work in lab animals, it does give us a sneak peek into how things might work in humans or what could be target routes and targets of choice. 3D bioprinting and bioengineering solutions fill the inter-genome variability gap giving us a high chance of success in terms of drug discovery, pathophysiology, and more important autologous engineered tissues as an excellent option for transplant medicine. Additionally, it has the promise to devise tissue engineering solutions for different traumas and injuries that are otherwise difficult to treat such as burns, diabetic wounds, spinal cord injuries, and myocardial infarction, to name a few. These solutions will not only promise zero to negligible immunogenicity but also greater chances of the graft acceptance by the patient’s body leading to increased and successful healing.


The concept of “lab-grown” organs offers hope amid the organ shortage crisis. How do you see 3D bioprinting addressing this challenge, and what ethical considerations surround the use of lab-grown organs?

As I mentioned, the hallmark of such a technology is being ‘autologous’ that could lead to more successful medical outcomes for a number of applications including transplant biology, pathology, and drug discovery. As far as ethical considerations are concerned, these are already laid out. Since this research does not rely on the animal use and instead depends on biomaterials or cells derived from human tissues, the ethical concerns are close to none for their research. For their use, however, we follow the path of proper clinical studies (trials) to make sure there are no concerns on their safety on human health. Since this field is new, we may have to wait until we see lab grown organs as a new norm for transplants.


Throughout your journey, you’ve experienced moments of scientific breakthrough. Could you share a particular moment that filled you with awe and accomplishment, giving you a glimpse of the immense potential of your research? 

I would not point to a single moment that stands out in my scientific pursuit. There are many small incidences like when you design a new biomaterial and it works as you had expected, or you develop a platform that can heal a damaged heart in a rat that was experimentally made to get a heart attack, or the development of a new bioprinting platform that has the capability to fabricate many tissues at once. I believe my ‘Eureka’ moment is yet to come. All we do now is work hard towards making better platforms that may ease the suffering of the world. Breakthrough moments will follow.


With any emerging technology, concerns and misconceptions may arise. How do you address concerns about safety and long-term viability in 3D bioprinted tissues and organs, and what steps are being taken to ensure public trust in this innovative approach?

That is an interesting question and unfortunately more often than not, scientific discoveries and inventions do not reach the people in the form and understanding they are expected to. I have been trying to devise ways that could help discuss research to a common person in the simplest of terms. Once people get an idea what research you are into, things become much easier for a scientist to also address the pros and cons of any technology or concept in a more lucid way. I believe more scientists are using their respective social media platforms to engage with public and use a jargon that is more understandable. I am a big fan of some YouTube channels that do exactly this. An example is ZeFrank’s channel “True Facts”. This channel discusses some great research on biology of animals, plants and other organisms in the most fun way. There is also a strong need for scientifically sound journalists who may help produce scientific discoveries and inventions in proper perspective.


Your academic excellence has been acknowledged with various awards and recognitions. How have these accolades impacted your self-belief and motivated you to strive for excellence in your work?

I think the biggest take away from these awards is never give up. Do your best and don’t worry about the reward. A scientist’s biggest reward is if their research helps answer questions, provide new understandings, develop platforms and drugs that may help alleviate pain and suffering. It is this thirst of trying to know the unknown or making something better that strives people to work even harder and excel.


As a recipient of the Excellence in Mentorship award, mentorship seems close to your heart. Can you share the profound influence of a mentor or role model on your own career choices? How do you approach guiding aspiring researchers and students on their scientific journeys?

My father had a huge influence on me. He taught me not just science but Urdu and English literature. I find myself very fortunate to have had such a teacher in my life. I had my highs and lows but was fortunate to find myself surrounded by great teachers who had faith and pushed me to do better. I have failed more times than I have passed in my research life but that has taught me to never give up. Own my mistakes. And learn from them. I have been doing free educational counselling to people for almost a decade now. One of the important things I have learnt while talking to young students who might have lost their way is showing them your failures. They need to connect with you on a level they can understand better. They need to see how I was indecisive at times and how I waded my way out of the turbulence. That is important. This makes the communication better. They need to see a ‘them’ in you. Once that happens, things become easier and that reflects in the outcomes.


Beyond your academic achievements, your entrepreneurial ventures and co-founding of three companies speak volumes about your commitment to practical solutions. What inspired you to venture into entrepreneurship, and how do you strike a balance between your academic pursuits and entrepreneurial endeavours?

These three ventures have different markets and different products. Move Beyond (Kashmir based) deals with counselling students, teachers, organisations, etc. SeedingSTEM (London based) initiates scientific collaborations between different instates of the developed nations with developing nations that stems from the annual conferences that are held in Cambridge University, UK. Kaleja Inc. (US based) develops bioengineering and biomaterial platforms. It is not easy to don different caps at the same time. Time management is very important and am still learning.


Your diverse background and experiences have shaped you in numerous ways. Can you share some life lessons that extend beyond the realm of science and academia, and how have these perspectives influenced your outlook on life and the world around you?

I think it is important to have self-realization. Know your weaknesses, limitations, and strengths. Honesty with your own self helps achieve things more successfully. The more I failed, the more I realised how little I am. Failing is good as it makes rising up better. I try to stick to my roots and remember and realise where I came from. It is always good to be humble if one wants to learn and achieve something.


Apart from academic excellence, what personal qualities do you believe are crucial for future generations to succeed in the field of bioengineering and regenerative medicine? How can young researchers cultivate resilience and adaptability as they navigate their scientific journeys?

Resilience, being stubborn on achieving your goals and giving your best. I believe these qualities are a necessity. Science is not as easy as it may sound but hard work and dedication can bear the fruits. To be able to feed your resilience, it is important to keep yourself abreast with the latest happenings in your field. It helps getting inspired and motivates you to keep pushing forward.

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