Faculty Spotlight – Dr. Hassan Al-Ali
“Hassan is unlike anyone I have met. He is a fusion of a computational scientist, an entrepreneur, a biochemist, a hyper efficient bench scientist, and an artist. Mix in more energy than you find in a colada (strong and sweet Cuban espresso) and you will start to build a mental image of Hassan.”
While still a Master’s student at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Hassan attended a lecture by a visiting professor, Dr. Sawsan Khuri. In her talk, she described the use of informatics in biological research, which at the time was a relatively new concept. Dr. Khuri explained how she could use genetic information from plants to computationally predict structure and function relationships of proteins. Although Hassan wasn’t particularly interested in plant biology, he says that his “mind was blown” by seeing the effect that information technology could have in biological science. He developed an instant interest in computational science and proceeded to incorporate informatics into his wet lab work. Hassan then helped establish the Computational Science and Bioinformatics Core at AUB, which he managed for two years.
Realizing he missed laboratory work, he contacted Dr. Khuri, who at that time was a professor at the University of Miami, for advice. She invited him to explore research opportunities in Miami, where they could collaborate on projects. There, he met Dr. TK Harris, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, who was using novel techniques to study the structure and function of genes important in cancer biology. Hassan joined his lab as a PhD student and started working on combining two different technologies, x-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, to understand the structural properties of complex proteins.
After completing his PhD, Dr. Hassan Al-Ali decided that he wanted to work in a lab that was more translational – a place where he could use his computational and biochemical knowledge in a complex disease model. So, he again went back to his now long-time mentor, Dr. Khuri, for guidance. She introduced him to Dr. Vance Lemmon and Dr. John Bixby at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Dr. Al-Ali felt an instant chemistry with them and soon joined their lab as a post-doctoral fellow.
With their support and the freedom to explore his own ideas, Dr. Al-Ali was able to be creative and try different things, some of which failed. But Drs. Bixby and Lemmon continued to encourage him to push forward. Most importantly, says Hassan, “They made me feel like it was ok to challenge the status quo, which had a profound impact on my ability and desire to innovate”. He started to combine basic biochemical information with cell-based assays and phenotypic screening, trying to merge all these methods to identify targets that can be modulated to make nerve fibers (axons) grow. Dr. Al-Ali knew that advances in machine learning technology would hold the key, and he turned to his long-time friend, Dr. Houssam Nassif, a machine learning scientist at Amazon, for help. The two had successfully collaborated on several projects back at AUB, where they were introduced to each other by Dr. Khuri during her fateful visit. He says of her now, “she was probably my biggest champion”. He then adds, “I have been extremely lucky with my mentors over the years, and I owe much of my success to the support and guidance I have received from them”.
Finally, Hassan Al-Ali’s platform began to take form and appeared to outperform existing technologies for identifying effective drug targets. Using this new tool, Dr. Al-Ali was able to identify a compound that engages multiple targets to robustly promote axon growth after injury in the central nervous system (CNS). When that compound was tested in an animal model, there was significant regrowth of axons after injury, something that doesn’t usually happen.
After the study was published, other investigators that wanted to perform a similar analysis in different disease models began sending Hassan their screening data. It soon became obvious that the platform was readily portable to other applications and can enable drug discovery in many other diseases, not only in CNS injury. Dr. Al-Ali and Dr. Lemmon co-founded a startup company, Truvitech, LLC, with the goal of commercializing their technology and extending its application to oncology and kidney disease, amongst others. To better prepare for the challenge of launching a startup company, Dr. Al-Ali decided to go to business school and he recently completed a Master’s degree in business management at the University of Miami.
Dr. Al-Ali and his company recently received notification that their recent NIH small business technology transfer (STTR) grant application was selected for funding. This will allow them to harden their drug discovery technology. They will then use it to develop a lead compound for diffuse large B-cell (DLBCL) lymphoma, as a first step in extending their work towards cancer applications.
Irrespective of Truvitech’s success, Dr. Al-Ali doesn’t plan on leaving academia any time soon. “For me, academia is my intellectual refuge, and I don’t want to give that up”, he says. “If you go back to my timeline, everything I’ve achieved was made possible by a gift of knowledge or information or data or guidance that I received freely as an academic from my mentors or collaborators.” Last year, Hassan met Dr. Alessia Fornoni, Director of the Katz Drug Discovery Center and Chief of Nephrology at UM. “I was greatly impressed by her combination of strong translational science and entrepreneurship”. After several discussions with Dr. Fornoni, Hassan joined her Center to launch a new drug discovery program for kidney disease. “This is the kind of magic that only happens in academia”. Hassan is also a member of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, where he collaborates with several groups on oncological drug discovery projects.