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Jordanian Pharmacologist Nancy Hakooz Receives International Honour

The Jordanian pharmacologist Nancy Hakooz has been chosen as the first recipient of a prestigious new prize for a scientist from a developing country, given by the International Society for the Study of Xenobiotics.

The society, known as ISSX, is the premier scientific organisation for researchers who study how organisms metabolise and dispose of xenobiotics. Xenobiotics are compounds that are foreign to an organism or are not part of its normal nutrition. Examples include drugs, food additives, and environmental pollutants.

The new prize, called the Award for Outstanding Achievement in Xenobiotic Research by a Scientist from an Underrepresented Nation, will honour researchers either for a single major contribution to research in the field of xenobiotics, or for significant sustained contributions over time.

Hakooz, a professor of pharmacogenetics in the University of Jordan’s School of Pharmacy, was chosen to receive the inaugural award “in appreciation of her efforts in studying the effect of genes on drug response, and her studying the genes of genetically isolated peoples such as the Circassians and Chechens in Jordan.”

She will receive the award at the society’s international conference in Seattle in September

“Administrative positions in academia come and go. My genuine passion is teaching and seeing my students’ eyes shine when they catch a new idea.”

Nancy Hakooz, Professor of Pharmacogenetics at the University of Jordan’s School of Pharmacy. 

In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Hakooz said it was important for Arab scientists to be represented in international scholarly societies like the ISSX. “We have distinguished research in this field, despite the lack of capabilities,” she said.

A Practical Element in Her Research

During her research career, Hakooz has focused on practical aspects of the topics she studies, such as how genetics affect the appropriateness of certain drugs for specific patients. 

“Not all patients benefit from the same drug or the same dose, since there are genetic differences between people,” she said.

“If we can study the effect of these differences on the effectiveness of a drug in patients, then the prescription for each drug will be different from one person to another,” she said. “This is called personalising medicine, meaning that the drug is provided in accordance with each patient’s condition.”

Studying a Subject She Loved

Hakooz says she chose to study pharmacy “out of love and conviction.” She had many choices of what to study at university, she said, because her excellent grades in high school. “However, I was satisfied to study what I really loved.”

After she received her bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences from the University of Jordan in 1992, Hakooz worked for a year as a teaching assistant in the School of Pharmacy. She then got a scholarship to study for a doctorate at the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom.

She obtained her Ph.D. four years later, specialising in drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics, the branch of pharmacology concerned with the movement of drugs within the body.

Challenges for Arab Researchers

After returning to the University of Jordan in 1997, Hakooz tried to work on research similar to her studies at the University of Manchester, but she ran into difficulties for lack of funding and support. She needed lab animals, she said, but their cost was very high, and it was not easy to obtain them in Jordan at that time.

The lack of sustained funding is one of the major challenges facing scientific research in Jordan, she said. Others include the lack of a group research culture, in which scientists exchange advice and knowledge.

It is important for Arab scientists to be represented in international societies like the ISSX, Hakooz says. “We have distinguished research in this field, despite the lack of capabilities.”

When she first returned from abroad, Hakooz said, she found researchers working on isolated “islands”. However, things have become better in the last ten years, with much better collaboration among research groups, she said.

To have a group culture, she tells young researchers, it is not a requirement that all of them do the same type of research, but that they support each other through research participation, each in their own discipline. 

Medicinal Clinical Trials in Jordan 

Despite these challenges, Hakooz believes Jordan has a great opportunity to become a regional centre for clinical studies of new drugs. Jordan has distinguished, globally recognised research centres that could participate in such studies, she said.

Pharmaceutical companies need to conduct clinical trials of new medicines in more than one place to collect data on a drug’s effectiveness and safety, Hakooz said.

An important question, she said, is, “How similar are the genetics of the people who participate in drug trials?”

Being able to answer that question will allow researchers to say whether the drug will be just as effective when it is widely circulated, she said. “The answer may be positive or negative. In order to be sure, we must participate in those experiments.”

Women in Higher Education

In addition to conducting research, Hakooz has held several administrative positions in her academic career.

She served as the founding dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy at Zarqa University, in northern Jordan, between 2010 and 2016. She was also a vice president of the university for three years during the same period.

In 2016, she returned to her alma mater, the University of Jordan’s School of Pharmacy. Four years later, she become the head of the college’s department of biological and clinical pharmacy.

On women’s leadership in Arab higher education institutions, she said: “In our country, administrative positions are granted, not acquired, and are not open to competition.”

“At the University of Jordan, for example, we have one female vice president compared to four male vice presidents, and three female deans compared to 21 college deans,” she said.

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“Academic leadership positions in public universities are governed by a permanent factor, which is personal acquaintances because they are governed by appointment.”

“Administrative positions in academia come and go,” she added. “My genuine passion is teaching and seeing my students’ eyes shine when they catch a new idea.”

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