Unlocking Possibilities: Q&A with CCS’s New Scientific Team Members about Future Challenges and Possibilities in Biomedical Science
By Aysha Akhtar, MD, MPH, CEO, CCS (or Dr. A)
The Center for Contemporary Sciences (CCS) has had quite the year. Launching just as the pandemic started in 2020 was.…interesting. At no time in recent history has there been such sharp divides on how best to promote human health. From disparate governmental efforts and communication strategies to public perception of risks, the role of medical science jumped from existing largely behind the curtain to being front and center on the international stage. The pandemic has intensely magnified the need for the most effective scientific strategies to tackle not just infectious diseases, but all diseases humans face. One thing that has been made especially clear: we desperately need research models that are based on human biology. Towards this end, CCS welcomes to its team two fantastic scientists who will lead the charge in supporting, promoting, and establishing the most innovative scientific tools that have the greatest ability to transform human health.
Q: You both have had amazing careers in the biomedical sciences, what is it about CCS and our mission that attracted you?
Zaher: CCS is full of dreamers on a mission to change the world. They are laser-focused on finding cures for debilitating diseases and in the process creating healthier, more compassionate societies. At the core, the Center is a Think (and do!) Tank that will revolutionize the way biomedical research is conducted: It is advancing credible models of human diseases, driving informed policy decisions based on facts, creating opportunities for meaningful partnerships, investing in the magical power of technology, and building the next generation of leaders who will think bigger and better than all of us. I wanted so badly to be part of this journey - in fact, I can hardly think of a more fulfilling pursuit for a scientist and a fellow dreamer than serving the CCS mission, let alone in such a collaborative role as CSO, and at this time for science.
Carmen: I was very driven to the mission of the organization which is advancing medical research by utilizing better tools such as human-specific testing models. By utilizing human-biology testing methods, scientists will be able to attain better outcomes to complex diseases. CCS’s focus with advancing medical research will allow for us to replace animal studies that have shown to produce inconsistent scientific data. CCS is at the forefront of advancing research quality, funding, training, and education. I am excited to grow professionally with an organization that is creating sustainable research change and development.
Q: You have both have extensive backgrounds in conducting basic and translational research, how did that experience lead you to CCS?
Zaher: CCS is advancing scientific discoveries and technological innovation that will impact all medical conditions, syndromes, and chronic diseases. I saw that as a real strength and a major attraction--- with quality and human relevance being the key metrics at the Center. On my end, I am fortunate to have had a scientific background that spans the fields of cancer, diabetes, stem cell biology, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/ Chronic fatigue syndrome, post-viral syndrome, arthritis, and heart disease. I saw this past as an asset and the CCS journey as a meaningful destination. I was also inspired by the life work of co-founder, Aysha Akhtar, in this field, and the dedication of the CCS leadership, Board, and staff. Our focus now is on developing partnerships and programs that will make real impact and reflect who we are --interdisciplinary, rigorous, collaborative, magnanimous, disruptive, inclusive, compassionate, and human-centric.
Carmen: I have tremendous experience as a translational scientist and serving in leadership positions managing research programs. During my journey practicing research and leading research organizations, I have learned that the cleanest and most reproducible data stems from utilizing human-specific testing models. Utilizing these models provide a positive direct correlation between data outcomes and the research topic of interest. I believe as a scientist, we can better serve and advance medical research by utilizing human-specific technologies and models that provide a higher success rate of drugs and vaccines entering the market. CCS’s mission is to advance medical research and improve lives by transitioning to human-specific medical research.
Q: In your experience, what has been the greatest challenges and conversely the greatest opportunities in promoting human health?
Zaher: Equitable access to quality care, rising healthcare cost, poor health outcomes, modeling diseases in biomedical research relevant to the human condition, and the slew of governmental health policies in need of modernization have all been real barriers here, to name a few. In fact, a major study published this month by The Commonwealth Fund revealed that the U.S. is the worst-performing nation in health care among all the 11 high-income countries examined. Worldwide, many nations have their own sets of challenges in promoting human health based on their geographic, demographic, security, and socioeconomic contexts.
All that said, we now live in an exciting time where the possibilities using advanced technologies and emerging tools of scientific discovery are limitless. I am especially energized by the advancement we see in the fields of organoid science, additive manufacturing, organ-on-a-chip, gene editing technologies, bioengineering and materials sciences, as well as data science, artificial intelligence and potentially the integration of quantum computing in healthcare and biomedical research. I believe that-- going forward--we will be measuring real progress in terms of years and not decades, as is the case now.
Carmen: The greatest challenges in promoting human health has been having access to necessary resources for better outcomes. Other constraints that have existed have been funding mechanisms, buy-in from key stakeholders (i.e., specific patient populations) and an existing platform to drive the necessary changes to advance public health standards.
The greatest opportunities have been working with the private, government and academic sectors. Navigating all three has enriched me with the necessary tools to be a successful biomedical scientist and healthcare leader. In addition, having the opportunity to collaborate with various entities globally has allowed for greater professional growth.
Q: Zaher, you previously held many senior leadership positions such as CSO, VP for research, and CEO, as well as a principal investigator, Board member, and academic faculty member--how do you see those professional experiences synergizing with CCS’s efforts to promote human-relevant research?
Zaher: Beyond the practical knowledge acquired there, these experiences collectively taught me the singular most valuable lesson that I will take to heart at CCS - That there are real people behind the data, stats, and numbers we deal with. People with lives, families, dreams, ambitions, hopes, and yes sometimes pets! I keep that perspective front and center. For those reasons, it is vital to stand firmly behind like-minded researchers, policymakers, entities, businesses, and missions in this space.
Having worked on many challenging diseases, I also became a firm believer that there is no serious medical condition more worthy of time and effort than another. They are all priority. Every medical condition matters the most to the persons and families afflicted by it. So, patient-centricity and human-relevance should be the key guiding principles for anyone privileged enough to be working in the field of biomedical research.
Granted, there are more complex, life threatening, and multifactorial conditions where progress has been very limited for decades and those are top priority. And here we need to ask - as CCS does all the time--- why is that the case? Are we using the proper systems, tools, study designs, and importantly, credible models to investigate human diseases or therapeutic interventions relevant to patients?
I also learned from experience that in any creative industry there is no shortage of detractors and entities resistant to change, but there are many more who will support progress and want to see innovations and advancement. If everyone is our cheerleader, then our work is not disruptive enough. So, as the Chief Science Officer, I expect resistance, and I am ready for the challenge. As the CCS team, we are in the business of finding solutions to real life medical problems and leading a paradigm shift in the way biomedical research is conducted. That is what we are focusing on at the Center using powerful innovation and evidence-based science – as simple as that.
Q: Carmen, you have been an active leader in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and leadership coaching, what has been your greatest frustration regarding diversity in medical research?
Carmen: Diversity in medical research and in academic organizations have been lacking since the beginning and continues to fall short. We are not providing opportunities and resources to diverse trainees or post-trained scientists. Private and public institutions continue to train, fund, and grow non-diverse scientists. In an ever-evolving world, institutions need to train those scientists that represent not only their organization but their communities. Diverse medical researchers can contribute their own intellectual philosophy and “flavor” to an already very complexed industry.
Thank you both Carmen and Zaher, and we are tremendously excited to welcome you to the CCS team and get started on the amazing accomplishments we will forge together!