The Iraqi researcher Mootaz Salman has won the “Young Scientist Lectureship Award” for research that involved putting human brain tissue on a microchip and using innovative technology to treat neurodegenerative diseases.
Salman started his academic career at the University of Mosul, where he earned a Bachelor of Pharmacy with Honours, and is now is a senior researcher and lecturer in the department of physiology, anatomy and genetics at the University of Oxford.
He spoke to Al-Fanar Media about his work, which has taken nearly ten years of research, and the experiences that led him to his current post.
The first researcher in Britain to win the award, Salman said the support he received from universities where he had worked in the United States and the United Kingdom had been a key factor.
“I deeply believe that the more a person works, the more fortunate he is,” Salman said.
“From the very beginning, I was aware of the challenges ahead, the double effort I had to make, as an academic from a conflict country, and the responsibility I had to convey a different image of my country and to help humanity provide solutions to brain diseases and stroke, which have risen dramatically.”
Human Brain Tissue on a Microchip
“From the very beginning, I was aware of the challenges ahead, the double effort I had to make, as an academic from a conflict country, and the responsibility I had to convey a different image of my country and to help humanity provide solutions to brain diseases and stroke.”Mootaz Salman Departmental research lecturer at the University of Oxford
The International Society for Neurochemistry and the and Asian-Pacific Society for Neurochemistry will present Salman with the award in September in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Salman led a research team that used a human brain “microvessel on a chip” to study what happens when drugs cross from the bloodstream into the brain.
The research was part of his ongoing work to understand the cellular physiology of the blood-brain barrier and exploit its mechanisms to improve the effectiveness of therapeutic treatments of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease.
The device the researchers designed for the study allowed them to track the movement of tiny molecular sizes across the blood-brain barrier. Their device is ideal for studies involving biotherapies, as well as being able to employ it in high-resolution imaging methods, such as transmission electron microscopy, Salman said.
Before moving to the University of Oxford two years ago as an assistant professor and lecturer at Wolfson College, Salman was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital in the United States.
Before that, he earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Sheffield Hallam University, in the United Kingdom.
During his doctoral studies, he discovered a new pharmacological framework for developing drugs to treat patients with brain tumours resulting from accidents and strokes.
This research focused on water receptors in the brain. Salman described it as a turning point that helped him recognise the molecular mechanics of brain diseases and think of ways to provide therapeutic solutions rather than surgery, which has major risks and complications.
Salman calls on Arab countries to increase investment in scientific research and benefit from the experience of wealthy Gulf countries that have attracted professors from major European and American universities to set up centres where young researchers can train.
He said the research led him to discover how cells develop brain tumours and the mechanics that cause these tumours and strokes at the molecular level.
A World Health Organization report says that about 75 million people in the world suffer from strokes annually. About five million of them die and another five million suffer permanent disability.
Salman says the incidence of brain disease in the Arab world is rising because of the dietary and living patterns of the majority of the population, the intake of fats and sugars at “unreasonable” rates, the lack of physical activity, and the pressures of daily life.
Difficulty of Research in Arab Countries
After graduating from the University of Mosul, Salman worked as a teaching assistant in the university’s Faculty of Pharmacy for about two years and experienced firsthand the difficulties of research in the Arab world. He said there was no financial support for conducting research, research laboratories were limited, and the teaching and administrative burdens on professors usually led them to abandon research.
Salman said scientific research should be considered “an investment,” not a “random academic luxury.” Such work only flourishes in a suitable environment where there is stability and financial support, he said.
“I feel a sense of responsibility and love towards my country, my city and my mother university, which helped me and paved the way for me at the beginning of my academic journey.”Mootaz Salman
He believes the political unrest Iraq has experienced in recent years has affected teaching in universities and Iraqi researchers’ chances for professional development. He described government support for Iraqi universities as “very limited” and said most research initiatives were “individual and random” and did not amount to regular institutional work.
A Call for Greater Investment in Research
Salman said Arab countries needed to increase investment in scientific research at the national level and benefit from the experience of wealthy Gulf countries that have attracted foreign and Arab professors from major European and American universities to establish research centres where young researchers can train.
He said he had tried to open communication channels between the University of Oxford and Iraqi universities to reach agreements for cooperation and scientific research, which could provide research fellowships for Iraqi researchers at British universities.
This year, the University of Mosul signed a cooperation agreement with Oxford on a project that uses remote sensing and photographic information systems to study antiquities. The work would preserve the cultural heritage of Nineveh Governorate and other Iraqi provinces, and attract Ph.D. students to training courses at British universities.
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Salman said: “These efforts give me a high sense of pride and a greater incentive for hard work and research that benefits all humanity. I feel a sense of responsibility and love towards my country, my city and my mother university, which helped me and paved the way for me at the beginning of my academic journey.”