Five Questions With Molecular Biologist Mo Al-Khalaf

Name: Mo Al-Khalaf
Job: Cardiac Immunology Research Fellow
Country: Canada
Age: 36

Dr. Mo Al-Khalaf is a graduate from the University of Ottawa, with a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Medicine. He also holds a Bachelors’ and Masters’ in Science in the field of Biochemistry from Concordia University (Montreal, QC). He is currently the University of Ottawa Cardiac Research Endowed Fellow at the Ottawa Heart Institute. Dr. Al-Khalaf’s ongoing research aims to shed new light on accelerated cardiac aging and organ failure. In addition to his ongoing biomedical research, Dr. Al-Khalaf’s interests in advocacy and community support are reflected in his multiple roles in various local, national and international committees, to advocate for early career professionals and highlight research within the cardiovascular community. Dr. Al-Khalaf is an experienced science communicator that contributes to multiple media platforms, including a monthly blog at the American Heart Association, BEaTS Research Radio interviews with scientists and medical professionals, and official social media representative for the Canadian Cardiovascular Society and American Heart Association early career professionals, discussing and promoting science and issues related to the wide healthcare and academia sectors. Find him on Twitter and Instagram

On his scientific research experience:

“My early research centered on skeletal muscle development and composition, from stems cells to adult tissue fibers, focusing on the various effects of DNA damage and response mechanisms in determining muscle biology. My post-doctoral research aims to shed new light on the connections between cardiac and systematic effects of DNA damage response, specifically in the realm of activation of innate immune pathways leading to detrimental inflammation within tissues and the body, ultimately causing accelerated aging and organ failure. The goal of this research is to understand the fundamental causes of pro-inflammatory states within the cardiovascular system, and to develop novel therapeutic strategies to reduce the increasing burden of heart disease on global populations.”

On preventing DNA damage that causes illness and disease:

“When it comes to DNA damage, triggers or sources causing this damage are quite numerous. Some come from outside the body, like sunlight or unhealthy or dangerous working environments; while some triggers are initiated from within the body, like mutations in the DNA maintenance machinery, or a dysfunction in energy production, which can lead to stress-induced dangerous molecules within cells that can break DNA strands. Generally this happens to everyone & all the time, it’s the cost of biological living! But most species, and especially us humans, have evolved over the years a lot of DNA “Quality Control” instruments (proteins) that help in surveillance, upkeep, repair, and even proper disposal of damaged DNA content beyond salvaging. These are collectively called the DNA Damage Response mechanisms, and that’s my main area of focus in biology.”

On why he decided to study the science of aging:

“Early in my science path I’ve spent a number of years in a fundamental discovery biology setting, where the team involved was focused on understanding previously unknown roles of various DNA Damage repair proteins, contributing to the published literature some greater insight into these mechanisms. I wanted to advance my research career to be more targeted towards improving health and translating scientific discovery into more immediately beneficial biomedical knowledge and use. With that thought in mind, I transitioned my work in DNA damage response into an area of human biology where DNA damage plays a major part in how the body functions, and that is where I pivoted to aging research. So much of biological aging is a consequence of increased DNA damage, coupled with a decreasing potential for DNA repair. If we can better target and rebalance this equation (lessen DNA damage burden, and bolster the DNA repair capacity) then it could be possible for us to reduce the negative effects of biological aging on the body, while keeping all the advantages of healthy aging! That’s the future I work every day for.”

On the top three things to do to prevent heart disease:

“When it comes to heart, or more generally, cardiovascular diseases (CVD), I see so much potential for vast improvement. Did you know that the number one cause of mortality worldwide is cardiovascular diseases! And did you know that future projections show that the burden of CVD is going to increase even more! Generally speaking, to reduce the global cardiovascular health crisis, we need to improve on current levels of healthcare access, healthcare education and continue to innovate and discovery better healthcare solutions. This is why only a systematic and multidisciplinary approach of bringing physicians/scientists/developers/teachers/policy makers is going to effective in reducing this burden. On an individual level, I can certainly recommend healthy diet and exercise (with an emphasis on cardiovascular endurance type of training of course!). Importantly, I think being mindful and proactive in maintaining/improving one’s personal health is the key to healthier life and aging. The more we prioritize our individual health, the better our chances are in keeping that “DNA damage / DNA repair” balance tipped towards a beneficial and desired outcome!”

On the importance of effective science communication:

“Recently over the past couple of years, I’ve gained a lot of appreciation for the value of communicating science to a wider set of audience, compared to the more established traditional ways that are used by academics and researchers of all kinds. While there is a lot of good in having research be discussed amongst peers, innovation and collaboration requires that researchers and academics talk a lot to each other and have direct methods of contact, I think there was some value lost in the gap between knowledge shared between scientists and knowledge provided to everyone interested or can benefit from this data. This is where I see science communication being a valuable modern method of sharing information outside the “echo chambers” and “silos” where this information is traditionally found. Social media provides a platform that brings together so many individuals from outside academia and research. Having more science injected into these new media platforms is definitely a vital and welcome new addition to the information sharing ecosystems. I highly encourage more scientists and academics to be active on social media, because these are the ways we can expand our reach. We provide useful data that could make the difference between the truth being out, or the misguided information spreading and distancing individuals from the scientific facts.”

Being mindful and proactive in maintaining AND improving one’s personal health is the key to healthier life and aging.

Dr. Mo Al-Khalaf, PhD

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