Researcher of the Month

Researcher of the Month is a new series started in January 2023 where FCI's researchers are introduced.

March 2023

FICAN Cancer Researcher (5/2022-12/2023) Shady Awad is a medical doctor (M.D.) and a post-doctoral researcher in Hematology Research Unit Helsinki (HRUH), University of Helsinki. Shady graduated as a medical doctor in 2008 from Cairo University, Egypt. After that, he specialized in clinical pathology and especially in hematopathology at the National Cancer Institute - Cairo, Egypt. Shady started his PhD project in the University of Helsinki in 2016 and graduated in May 2021. 

Passion for both clinical hematology and hematological research

Ever since his studies at the medical school, Shady has had a great passion for both clinical hematology and hematological research. Even the protagonist of his favorite novel series is a professor of clinical hematology who solves paranormal mysteries. Shady thinks that hematology is one of the most dynamic fields in medicine, where technological advances have enhanced understanding of both the normal functioning of bone marrow and blood and development of hematological diseases. On the other hand, according to Shady, pathology is the most logic branch of medicine, where one learns how to read the signs and follow the clues to solve the disease puzzle. Thus, working as both a diagnostician and a researcher in the field of hematopathology offers Shady a life-long learning trip. 

Treatment options for leukemia patients

Shady’s main research interest is to develop personalized efficient treatment options for leukemia patients and especially high-risk patients. In his research projects, he utilizes the state-of-art genetic and drug screening technologies to better understand the pathogenic mechanisms underlying poor treatment outcomes in chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). CML is a success story of translational medicine, where the identification of causative genes has led to development of targeted drugs with high efficiency against leukemia cells, minimal toxicity to healthy cells and marked improvement of patient’s survivals rates. Despite these advances, a subset of patients still responds poorly to targeted therapy and can progress to aggressive, fatal form of the disease. The main goal of Shady’s research is to integrate genomic and drug screening data to identify potential prognostic biomarkers as well as novel targetable vulnerabilities of the leukemia cells, which enable development of more optimized and personalized treatment strategies. Shady believes that the lessons to be learned from CML evolution model can be adopted in different leukemias and cancer in general.

Shady’s recently published in Blood Cancer Journal an article called Epigenetic modifier gene mutations in chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) at diagnosis are associated with risk of relapse upon treatment discontinuation. This study provides novel evidence on the prognostic value of genetic data even at the early stages of leukemia diagnosis in stratifying the patients and tailoring treatment strategies, including attempts to successfully stop treatment. CML targeted therapy is a life-long treatment with health, social and economic burdens. In Finland, there are about 550 CML patients with annual medication costs of more than 15 million euros. Given the improved survival rates of CML patients, goals of CML management have shifted more toward successful discontinuation of treatment. In discontinuation trials, only half of the patients with optimal treatment responses were able to maintain treatment-free remission (TFR). Hence, the identification of biomarkers that can predict TFR achievement is critical to optimize selection of patients for attempting discontinuation. In this study, Shady and his colleagues provided the first insights into the impact of cancer-associated mutations, especially epigenetic modifier gene mutations, as a risk factor on the outcome of tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) treatment discontinuation in CML patients. Additionally, they demonstrated functional evidence on the link between some example mutations and CML evasion of the antileukemic immune response, that plays a key role in preventing leukemia relapse. Incorporation of genetic data into risk stratification of the patients potentially enables optimization of frontline treatment selection and tailoring of more effective CML management strategies.

Identification of novel targeted therapy options 

Shady’s on-going projects focus on identification of novel targeted therapy options that enable complete eradication of leukemic stem cells (LSCs) in CML. LSCs represent a major challenge in different types of leukemias, where they are reported to underlie treatment resistance, relapse and or disease progression. Using high-throughput drug screenings and state-of-art functional genomic tools, including genome-scale CRISPR gene editing screens and single cell RNA sequencing, Shady and his colleagues aim to identify novel pathway vulnerabilities, which allow for maximized targeting of CML-LSCs using novel TKI-drug combinations. Successful eradication of CML-LSCs paves the road for achieving CML cure.

Family, nature and writing

Apart from work, Shady is a husband and a father of two lovely children. In spare time, the family takes the opportunity to enjoy the versatile and beautiful Finnish nature throughout the year. In winter they play in the snow and go sledding, in summer they visit forest, beaches and travel around the country. Shady also enjoys reading a lot and writes poems and short novels.

Shady Awad works as both a diagnostician and a researcher in the field of hematopathology. The main goal of his research is to identify potential prognostic biomarkers and novel targetable vulnerabilities of the leukemia cells to develop more optimized and personalized treatment strategies.