The role of drug discovery researchers in easing people’s suffering

A conversation with Kamar Sahloul, Ph.D.

Open, curious and always smiling, Kamar Sahloul, Ph.D., is an enthusiastic and passionate ambassador for NuChem Sciences after joining us just a year ago.

Motivated by a desire to help people who are suffering, Kamar started her chemistry journey in her home country of Lebanon, before gaining a high level of expertise in Paris and Alberta.

Now working as one of our Research Scientists, Kamar tells us about her early experiences in chemistry and how focusing on the needs of patients drives her work in drug discovery.


How did your interest and career in drug discovery begin?

I have always been very attracted to the idea of being in a laboratory and discovering new things. At school, I loved science and did well in physics and chemistry. So, I chose to study chemistry at the Lebanese University in Beirut. Then, I received a grant to pursue a master’s degree in organic chemistry at Paris-Sud University (Paris XI) in France.

Once I arrived in France, I was all alone in a different country. Everything was new and I didn’t know anyone. There was a big difference in the level of chemistry we were learning in the master’s degree and what I learned in Lebanon. There was also competition between me and the other students to win a certain number of grants. Luckily, I succeeded in getting a grant to continue my studies with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. My focus was on glycochemistry, or sugar chemistry. It was an area of chemistry that had a pharmaceutical aspect, and it sparked my interest in medicines.

After I completed my doctorate, I applied for a postdoc at the University of Alberta and got the chance to work with Professor Todd Lowary, a very famous professor in carbohydrate chemistry. I worked there for a few years and then left to have my children and be a mom.

A few years later, my husband was offered a job in Montreal, and we followed him there. I also wanted to return to work, so I applied for a job at NuChem Sciences. It’s been a year since I started here and love it.


What convinced you to choose NuChem Sciences?

My husband was working at NuChem already as a Principal Researcher, and he told me that the work environment here was very good. So, I applied for a job in a different team.

NuChem is a growing company with a bright future ahead. It has already grown massively in the past few years. At the same time, the atmosphere at NuChem is very friendly and warm. All this encouraged me that it was the right time for me to return to the workplace.


Sounds amazing! Tell us about a typical day for you at work.

I start my day with my colleagues in the office. We recap on what we did the previous day, we do the calculations for the reactions we still need to do and get a plan in place. Then, we go to the laboratory and assess the reactions that we carried out the night before.

Every week, our team gathers together to discuss any problems we’re encountering, and we support each other as we find solutions. As colleagues, we really benefit from sharing ideas and learning from one another.

As a team, we also prepare a report that we share with our client. We show them our progress, we let them know about any issues and suggest solutions.


It sounds like a very collaborative way of working. How would you describe yourself and your role as a scientist on the team?

On a scientific level, I specialize in organic chemistry and am a very curious person. I really enjoy finding solutions to problems. On a personal level, I am always smiling and in a good mood – regardless of the challenges a scientist can come up against in the laboratory. I think others would say that I’m approachable and friendly. I get to know people quite quickly.


Is this what inspired you to be an ambassador for NuChem Sciences?

I think so. I’m not the kind of scientist who just wants to stay in the laboratory and not talk to anyone. I’m really sociable, so being an ambassador is a chance to meet new people and represent NuChem. For me, being able to show what we do is very exciting. I’m very proud to be able to do this.


What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?

There will always be challenges in science and in our personal lives. At every stage of my life, there has been a big challenge to overcome. I faced a challenge when I moved to France for my master’s degree, when I was alone, struggling with a language barrier, and in competition with my peers. Eventually, I succeeded; I reached a level where I could earn a grant and continue my studies.

Coming to Canada for a postdoc at a prestigious university was also a challenge. My initial postdoc contract was only for six months, but I worked really hard to give them confidence in my work and ended up staying a few years.

After that, there was the challenge of returning to work after raising my children. Coming back to science at such a high level, getting used to being in the laboratory again, and following the fast pace of chemistry in the industry was difficult at first. Luckily, I had the chance to adapt very quickly.


How did NuChem build a team of world-class scientists?

The leadership team  has decades of experience and a lot of past successes in the pharmaceutical industry. They know how to choose talent and understand that not just anyone can work at NuChem.

When you apply for a job at NuChem, there are usually two or three interviews. You have to show your scientific abilities, your skills, and your personality. It’s a really intensive screening and an opportunity to prove yourself. If you are hired and added to their team it becomes easier to grow and develop. So, the secret is people: the leadership team and our colleagues.

As a mom, I feel very lucky to work at NuChem. The team understands that when your child is sick, you have to stay at home or bring them to a medical appointment. During difficult times, everyone is kind and flexible. They concentrate more on the quality of your work than on the number of hours you work per day.


What is it like to know that you might one day discover a life-changing drug?

That’s the dream, right? It’s a long path, but we are involved in the most essential part. It all starts with drug design and the production of molecules. After that, the molecules are screened to find the target and who knows, one of those molecules might show powerful medicinal effects. We never know!

Right now, our team is working on a potential drug for a life-threatening condition, so there is always something important that motivates us. We think of people who suffer, who put their hopes in us. We always work towards finding something to ease their suffering. There is a noble goal behind our profession and that keeps me going every day.

For you, what is the most interesting drug discovery in history?

For me, it’s the discovery of prontosil. It’s not very well known, but it is considered to be the first miracle drug. It was discovered by a German pathologist and bacteriologist, Gerhard Domagk. At the time, he had a hypothesis that a dye can have an anti-bacterial effect without damaging human cells. He chose prontosil, a chemical used to dye linen and leather, to prove it. He prepared a culture of cells and streptococcus in vitro and used prontosil on it, but he didn’t see any effect. However, he didn’t stop there. He injected mice with streptococcus pyogenes and then injected some of them with prontosil. He found that the mice with prontosil were cured and the mice without prontosil died. It was a great discovery, but he didn’t understand why it didn’t work in vitro.

Years later, the Institut Pasteur discovered that when we administer prontosil in the body, it decomposes into fragments. One of those fragments has an antibacterial effect.

We should remember that before antibiotics, bacterial infections were everywhere, and the only treatment was amputation. So, this discovery, and penicillin, saved many lives.


As an ambassador for NuChem, what advice do you have for young people considering a career in drug discovery?

I would tell them that a good career is a profession that is noble and is always focused on helping humanity. There are a lot of people who put their hope in you. There are lots of people waiting for something to ease their suffering. We need your talent!


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