Path to PhD... and beyond

PhD candidate Md Saifuzzaman talks about DNA-PK inhibitors and his deeply personal reasons for pursuing a career in science

I grew up in a village around fifty kilometres from Khulna, in southwestern Bangladesh. The largest mangrove forest in the world, the Sundarbans, is not far from my home. Farms, rivers, green trees and rural folks are my most vivid childhood memories.

My father died of liver cancer in October 2004. It was the most terrible time of my life. His condition was diagnosed quite late, and we couldn’t do much for him. I still remember those days, how helpless we felt against the disease. I knew then that I wanted to do something to help others, and began searching for opportunities to work in cancer research.

I completed my Bachelor of Pharmacy at Khulna University, Bangladesh, where I was fortunate to work with scientists who specialised in medicinal plants. I later obtained a VLIR-UOS scholarship to undertake my masters in molecular biology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium. My thesis focused on the generation of a single-domain antibody. As part of this research, I received another scholarship to work in Professor Jan Steyeart’s structural biology lab.

My family and I moved to Australia in 2014. The opportunity to undertake a PhD here, and to work with exceptional scientists in a cutting edge research environment, is a dream come true. My supervisor is Dr Jasim Al-Rawi, who has more than 40 years’ experience in synthetic chemistry. He is a wonderful mentor. This year we synthesized some highly potent and selective DNA-PK inhibitors, which have the potential to improve cancer treatments.

In Australia, one in three men and one in four women are diagnosed with cancer before they reach the age of 75. Many first-line cancer therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiation, use DNA-damaging agents. They target genomic DNA and form highly toxic double strand DNA breaks that cause the death of cancer cells. Unfortunately, these therapies often cause resistance. Human cells repair damaged DNA in various ways: DNA dependent protein kinase (DNA-PK), for instance, accelerates the repair of DNA breaks. It increases cell survival, but also increases the resistance of cancer cells. Inhibiting DNA-PK may help to reduce resistance to therapies.

I am currently synthesizing highly selective DNA-PK inhibitors, and hope that some of these compounds will enhance the efficacy of both chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I hope to one day establish my own research group at Khulna University and work to bring my current research into drug development.

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