Zain Awamleh is a trainee at Children’s Health Research Institute, a program of Lawson, and a PhD candidate in the Department of Biochemistry, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University.

The research

Normal development of the placenta is critical to ensure proper fetal growth in utero, and abnormalities affect both maternal and fetal health. The placenta is the major regulator of the intrauterine environment and transports O2 and nutrients from the mother to the fetus and CO2 and waste from the fetus to the mother.

Preeclampsia and intrauterine growth restriction are two of the most common pregnancy related complications resulting from abnormal placental development. Placental microRNAs have recently been investigated as potential biomarkers for these complications, but they are also believed to play a role in placental growth and development by influencing gene expression. 

My research assesses the role of microRNAs in human placenta complicated by preeclampsia and/or intrauterine growth restriction. I also assess the potential use of these microRNAs as biomarkers to predict the onset of these complications, as placental microRNAs can enter maternal circulation during pregnancy.

Career journey

I have completed my undergraduate studies here at Western, earning a degree in Honors Specialization in Genetics. During my undergraduate career I had the unique opportunity to work in a number of research laboratories on campus. For my fourth year thesis, my project focused on the analysis of copy number variation in twins discordant for schizophrenia. My research at the undergraduate level was integral in my decision to pursue graduate studies. 

The idea of asking questions and searching for the answers excited me. I began searching for a suitable research laboratory to pursue my studies. I started my Master’s Degree in Dr. Victor Han’s lab at Lawson’s Children’s Health Research Institute, and have chosen to transfer to the PhD stream. 

Hospital-based research

All major advancements in medicine and science came from many decades of research. Better treatment options and better capabilities to diagnose complex diseases are a result of hospital based research because of the collaboration between clinicians and researchers. 

All health care professionals, at all levels, must understand the importance of integrating research into the patient’s healthcare plan. This is the only way we can make larger leaps in science and medicine to better treat and diagnose patients, and, subsequently better their quality of life.

Bench to bedside

In the first two years of my project, there was a heavy focus on obtaining patient samples to conduct the proposed work. I dedicated time to raising awareness of my research on the obstetrical care unit at London Health Sciences Centre’s Victoria Hospital because I required the assistance of caregivers, particularly nurses, to identify patients and obtain samples at the time of delivery. Creating an organized, streamlined process to identify, recruit, and collect patient samples was important. After obtaining a sufficient number of samples, I transitioned to the basic science laboratory to start working on the samples.

For the following two years, I worked in the lab, but also continued to enroll patients and collect samples. This is because the patients we seek have more severe pregnancy complications, so samples are less frequent and more difficult to obtain. The latter part of my degree included work both on the bench and in the clinical units, which was an exciting challenge for me.

Interacting with patients 

To enroll patients in my study, I describe the purpose of the study, any the risk factors, and how the patient can contribute. There were no significant barriers to convincing patients to be a part of the study, as their contribution to my particular study is fairly non-invasive. I value my interactions with patients and their families and took the opportunity to educate patients about the importance of hospital-based research and, when appropriate, other ongoing research projects.  When interacting with patients I believe it is important to keep in mind the patient’s condition, to be compassionate, and to listen and address their concerns.

The next step

I would like to further my training in health research, particularly in the fields of molecular genetics and bioinformatics. Advancements in technologies used for genetic diagnostics have created a need for individuals skilled in analyzing high through-put data using machine learning, but who also possess the biological knowledge to make sense of the data. Technologies such as next-generation sequencing now allow us to look at an individual’s entire genome from a very small source sample. There is a wealth of knowledge and discovery in this field that I truly believe will reshape the landscape of patient care over the decades to come.

Empowering goals

I always see myself achieving my goals in Canada. However, it has been particularly challenging for young Canadian scientists to transition into more senior and stable careers at home. With the release of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review (Naylor Report) in 2017, there has been a large push for Canada’s current liberal government to implement the recommendations of the report. Lawson has played a pivotal role in enabling us to connect with all levels of government including local members of parliament, cabinet ministers, and the Prime Minister’s Office, to express our support of the report. 

I urge all scientists of all ages to make yourselves heard. It can be as simples as talking to your family and your friends. It is our responsibility as Canadian Scientists to showcase our achievements to our government and advocate for ourselves, and our peers.