Saudi Ambassador Learns About Brain Tumor Research at UW-Madison
When Dr. Mohammed Alomar, assistant cultural attaché for academic affairs with the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, visited Madison on Oct. 1, the department of neurological surgery welcomed the opportunity to make an international connection.
The department, in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, is noted for its interest in improving the health of people around the world.
According to Dr. John Kuo, an assistant professor, the department has a history of international graduate students, fellows and faculty who receive advanced training in neurosurgery and neuroscience research and return to their home countries to make significant contributions.
The department's chair, Dr. Robert Dempsey, is a leader in international neurosurgical residency development and education. He is a board member of the Foundation for International Education in Neurological Surgery, and his work to improve patient care and establish neurosurgeon training in developing countries has earned a humanitarian award from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
A highlight of Alomar's visit was a tour of Kuo's research lab, where Alomar learned how the lab is studying brain tumor stem cells. He also had the chance to meet Bahauddeen Alrfaei, a Saudi student in the lab and a PhD candidate in the Cellular and Molecular Pathology Graduate Program.
Alrfaei demonstrated how the Kuo lab is studying the potential of resveratrol, an antimicrobial substance found in the skin of red grapes, as a treatment for brain tumors. Numerous studies at the basic level have showed that resveratrol inhibits the growth of cancer cells, but its effect on tumors in humans remains unknown.
Alrfaei said he appreciated Alomar's show of support by taking an interest in the lab's work.
"It was a pleasure to show him my research," Alrfaei said. "I enjoyed it and I appreciated that he came to see my research."
Dempsey noted that the Saudi ambassador's visit was significant in terms of UW-Madison's objective of improving global health. One of the most important aspects of that mission is developing partners for global health in specific regions throughout the world.
"There is a particular significance for our laboratory showing the international importance of such issues as brain tumors," Dempsey said. "This is something that affects all of mankind, and the benefits of research which is going on here should be applicable throughout the world."
Kuo Lab Looks to Stem Cells for Cancer Therapies
Kuo's focus on cancer stem cells has important implications for the treatment of brain tumors. According to Kuo, cancer stem cells are likely the cells that are resistant to current treatments and the source of rapid tumor recurrence. Therefore, studying the molecular biology of cancer stem cells may lead to more effective therapies for brain cancer.
"By understanding how those cells work, we learn what abnormality causes them to lose their ability to be regulated by the normal processes which keep them in balance in all of us," Dempsey added. "This is a significant advance toward new treatments for brain tumors and at the same time, toward the possibility of regulating the processes by which the brain may be repaired after an injury."
One of the lab's current studies focuses on using microRNA treatments to stop the growth of cancer cells. MicroRNAs are important for gene regulation, and since cancer can be caused by an overexpression or underexpression of genes, microRNAs may play a key role in cancer development.
Kuo's lab is investigating whether correcting the difference in microRNA levels between normal stem cells and cancer stem cells will reduce the growth of tumors. Alrfaei said this has so far worked with cultures, and the next step will be trying microRNA treatments in mice.
Bringing Knowledge Home
Working in Kuo's lab has proved to be a perfect fit for Alrfaei. During his undergraduate studies at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he knew he wanted to study stem cells, and before he came to the United States, he was aware of UW-Madison's reputation as a leader in the field.
"My professors in Saudi Arabia told me, if you want to work with stem cells, go to Wisconsin," Alrfaei said.
He has enjoyed collaborating with other scientists in Kuo's lab. "Dr. Kuo is good at picking people," he said. "The people he picks always fascinate me, and the people he collaborates with always fascinate me more."
The knowledge Alrfaei gains from working in the department of neurological surgery will serve him well in the future. After he completes his PhD, he plans to do postdoctoral research before returning to Saudi Arabia, where he has already accepted a job as a principal investigator in a new laboratory that will be dedicated to stem cell research.
According to Dempsey, the development of future leaders such as Alrfaei is important for the improvement of global health.
"International trainees in the medical sciences are essential for worldwide advancement of science and medical excellence, and we would hope that our efforts to link the two countries educationally would in many ways improve quality of patient care in both countries and throughout the world of global medicine," Dempsey said.
Date Published: 10/15/2010