Ferguson: Growing a partnership in the Holy Land

From April 29-May 5, Dr. James Koropatnick and myself, both of the London Regional Cancer Program (LRCP), Lawson Health Research Institute (LHRI) and Western, were guests of Dr. Yousef Najajreh, College of Pharmacy associate professor and scientific research dean at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, Palestine.

Koropatnick serves as cancer research laboratory program director and a Microbiology and Immunology professor at Western; I serve as an LHRI associate scientist and Oncology adjunct professor at Western.

The visit was part of a collaboration between cancer researchers at the two universities, begun by a delegation from the Ontario government, led by Premier Dalton McGinty, and representatives from Ontario universities visiting Al-Quds in May 2010. The subsequent collaboration with Western was spearheaded by Ted Hewitt, then associate vice-president (research).

Following a visit later that year to Western by Najajreh, a collaboration was established between his chemistry laboratory at Al-Quds and Koropatnick’s laboratory at the LRCP.

Inspired by the positive outcome of the testing Al-Quds compounds against cancer cells, the researchers applied for – and were awarded – $260,000 in funding from the Ontario’s Ministry of Research and Innovation (MRI). This funding makes possible the academic exchange between the two universities, including a study period this summer by one of Najajreh’s graduate students in Koropatnick’s laboratory, as well as funding for the basic research in producing and testing the novel anticancer agents in the two laboratories.

“Our collaboration with professor Najajreh and Al-Quds University fits extremely well with our focus in London on generating new drugs to treat cancer. Professor Najajreh’s expertise in the chemistry has led to intriguing new platinum-containing compounds with exciting potential to be developed as anticancer drugs,” Koropatnick said. “Combining his chemistry knowledge with our ability to test those compounds in biological systems is an ideal way to move these promising new molecules along the road from discovery to treatment. In addition, creating scientific and medical connections between Western and Al-Quds creates exciting new international linkages in discovery and training that can lead to collaborations in many additional areas.”

Najajreh agreed. “I was thrilled to have our Canadian colleagues visiting Al-Quds and Palestine.  Having Jim and Pete at my lab marks a noteworthy event on the history of the Anticancer Drugs Research Lab, which is unique in obtaining the MRI grant. I wish to see the collaboration between Palestine and Canada enhanced on all aspects and scientific research in particular. As a researcher and as Dean of Scientific Research I will be welcoming and ready to facilitate ties and relations between researchers and academicians at Al-Quds University and Canadian universities, especially with Western, to the benefit of us all.”

During the day, we had a chance to meet not only with faculty members in the Pharmacy school, but also with administrative staff of Al-Quds, including professor Rafik Karaman, College of pharmacy dean; professor Hasan Dweik, executive vice-president; and Hussein Jaddu, assistant to the vice-president for academic affairs.

I was delighted with my first visit to Palestine and Israel. Fortunately for Koropatnick and me, the working language of the science departments is English, so we were able to have a great interaction with the students and faculty. They were enthusiastic about learning our side of the anticancer program, and we learned a lot about their chemistry approach to anticancer drug development.

I can’t wait to return to Al-Quds after we have performed our experiments here, and engage in further discussions about possibly moving these compounds into clinical trials.

We were also treated to the historical aspect of the Holy Land. Staying right in Bethlehem, and visiting Jerusalem, you are in the heartland of two major world religions and an important centre for a third. People were so nice to us everywhere we went; one can easily forget the undercurrent that exists in that area. I hope it can all be resolved soon, because it is a shame it likely keeps some visitors away.

It is really a part of the world worth seeing.

We wish to acknowledge the support and assistance of the premier and Economic Development and Trade Minister Sandra Pupatello, as well as the persistent support of Dr. Rand Askalan, University of Toronto, in arranging the funding from the MRI. As Najajreh explains, “Palestine is very special place with a lot to be studied. I have hope that Canada will play a more positive and balanced role in an area that needs lot of attention and help.”

Peter Ferguson is a Lawson Health Research Institute associate scientist and Oncology adjunct professor at Western.