Published 18 September 2020 by Khalid El Bairi

How Corona Changed My Research – and My Way to Lindau

Khalid is fascinated by research on cancer and is invited to the next Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Photos/Credits: Meyer & Meyer/iStock.

Motivated by my father’s library, which was well loaded by scientific books, and a wonderful village surrounded by mountains and beautiful landscapes, I was heavily involved in collecting plants of my region, finding their scientific names and assembling them in herbariums. At the age of 12 I decided to move to Nador city to continue my studies at secondary school. I still remember my whole day trip to capture the African clawed frog for our experiments on the physiology of the nervous system. This inner devotion has fueled me to continue my journey into this research field and finally I got my baccalaureate in experimental sciences. My greatest souvenir was my arrival at the medical school after a long story of failures to pass the entrance assessment test to the faculty. During the course of my academic life, I was very happy once: When I was accepted to the Harvard Medical School – Cancer Biology and Therapeutics Program, but given the high fees of this course, my dream has disappeared. And the plan to leave my country for science has ended here. Since then, I have continued my route to improve my skills and my scientific background. I am fascinated by research on cancer biomarkers, clinical oncology and evidence-based medicine for which I have published many articles in international cancer journals.

Meeting Nobel Laureates

Surprisingly, on a nice day in early October 2019, I was sitting in my room working on my new review paper when I received a phone call that would spectacularly change my life. This was from my professor Maryam Fourtassi (MD/PhD) who called me to announce my recommendation to the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. I was surprised as it is the first time that I heard about such an event. She said: Do you want to meet a Nobel Laureate? I got very exited. Can I really be selected? I never thought that I would meet a Nobel Laureate someday.

I knew that the selection process is quite selective but I was also confident. Later, it came true! I received that wonderful acceptance email which was a major milestone in my academic career, particularly as a future oncologist from a limited-resource setting like Morocco. This unique and distinctive opportunity for outstanding young scientists to get advice and guidance from Nobel Laureates with outstanding experience was long-awaited.

Researchers around the world are working on vaccines and medicines to fight the pandemic. Photo/Credit: Bill Oxford/iStock

Response of Researchers to the Pandemic

With the emergence of the COVID-19 outbreak and its disastrous consequences, the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting for this year was postponed to next summer. I feel disappointed, but I know that every tragedy that threatens human life is an opportunity for scientific discoveries. The response of biomedical and clinical researchers to this pandemic across the globe was quick and more than 55,000 articles were published and 3,300 clinical trials were started in only eight months. The fact that I am too far from the scientific field of this outbreak did not discourage me from contributing to this fight. Despite that I was focusing on my doctorate and publishing my first book, I took a break and a new idea came up to join this struggle.

Repurposing Drugs

Indeed, by reading up-to-date reviews on the mechanisms of this disease, I realized that there are many host and viral targets that can be drugged by known marketed anticancer molecules. This is called drug repurposing of approved medicines and can be applied to accelerate new drug discovery. Drug repurposing during COVID-19 pandemic is a key solution to rapidly supply the current pharmacotherapeutic arsenal against this disease. Promisingly, a number of these drugs including immune-checkpoint and kinase inhibitors are currently being investigated in clinical trials for COVID-19. A detailed discussion of this approach with the help and collaboration of oncologists from Italy and Canada has allowed us to publish a paper in The European Journal of Cancer, which is a prestigious journal in the field of clinical oncology (El Bairi K, Trapani D, Petrillo A, et al. “Repurposing Anticancer Drugs for the Management of COVID-19”, upcoming). In our paper we focus on 20 potential antitumor drugs that showed promising anti-SARS-CoV-2 tendencies and host response modulation activities. A number of these anticancer molecules are currently investigated in clinical trials for COVID-19.

Khalid El Bairi during a presentation

Again, this indicates that science has no borders and sharing ideas between researchers across countries can save lives. I hope that the upcoming Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting will be another opportunity to develop my network and meet other cancer researchers including Nobel Laureates in Physiology and Medicine.

I wish that developing countries, in particular Morocco, take care of their young and highly motivated students and researchers. If the considerable pressure by the superiors and the current drastic situation continue, migration cannot be avoided. But I am very optimistic, particularly with the return of young Moroccan researchers from prestigious universities to progress research in their country. This is a growing concern for all young scientists in the developing world and the pursuit of better higher education and research conditions should be a human right. Decision-makers are much obliged to recognize the value of skilled young researchers and students, which are able to boost science in their country and move this field forward, currently sometimes without any financial support.

Khalid El Bairi

Khalid El Bairi is pursuing his medical studies at the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy at the university in Oujda, Morocco. With the outbreak of the coronavirus he has focused on research concerning COVID-19. Khalid is looking forward to attend the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting as a young scientist.