Class of 2024: Mohammed AlAwadh delves into the intricacies of drug development

April 24, 2024

mohammed alawadh working on a piece of lab equipment in a drug discovery lab
Mohammed AlAwadh has served as part of the technical staff at the Center for Drug Discovery while at VCU. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Mohammed AlAwadh’s interest in discovering and developing new drugs that fight against infectious diseases piqued while he was finishing his Doctor of Pharmacy degree at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

“Treating infections has remained an enduring public health challenge as viruses and bacteria continue evolving resistance,” said AlAwadh who is getting his Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy.

AlAwadh’s doctoral work centers on antiviral drug discovery targeting essential proteases of SARS-CoV-2 and hepatitis C virus. AlAwadh has high praise for Martin Safo, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Pharmacy who worked with him.

“His wisdom and vast network of collaborations have greatly enriched my academic journey. He involved me in multiple research projects, expanding my experience and helping me establish my network of collaborators,” he said. “This scientific journey has been incredibly rewarding, and I'm profoundly grateful for it.”

The Saudi Arabia native came to VCU in 2017 because of the prestigious reputation of the School of Pharmacy and the Department of Medicinal Chemistry along with the resources at the VCU Institute for Structural Biology, Drug Discovery and Development (now called Center for Drug Discovery).

“The resources and instrumentation will enrich my experience in protein structural characterization, computational modeling and drug design techniques,” AlAwadh said.

The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education has recognized VCU as one of the recommended overseas destinations for students who want to advance their scientific competencies, and there is an ongoing research collaboration between faculty at VCU and King Abdulaziz University, AlAwadh said.

As part of the technical staff at the Center for Drug Discovery, AlAwadh has been managing several key biophysical platforms and automated systems that help advance a diverse array of drug discovery projects across VCU and externally.

He often conducts training sessions to help researchers become proficient in the sensitive techniques used in drug discovery and optimize their experimental design.

“Additionally, I perform routine maintenance and calibration procedures per stringent protocols to uphold instrumental sensitivity and reproducibility,” AlAwadh said.

The specialized equipment he oversees ranges from isothermal titration calorimetry to label-free kinetic screening tools.

“I have aided numerous faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students in creatively integrating these technologies into their early-stage drug discovery pursuits. It has been professionally rewarding to troubleshoot challenges shoulder-to-shoulder with trailblazing scholars across various disciplines to help transform target ideas into promising lead compounds,” AlAwadh said.

He has also used his expertise in computer science and artificial intelligence tools to help students install and utilize computational programs relevant to their drug discovery pursuits.

“I enjoy troubleshooting computer issues, as it requires extensive and rapid critical thinking, both skills I possess. In my research, I have utilized several AI tools in drug discovery – these tools surpass traditional techniques in speed and accuracy,” said AlAwadh.

Additionally, he has volunteered to help instruct advanced molecular modeling and advanced molecular modeling courses in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry.

“Beyond hands-on training, I have also provided recommendations when students consult me regarding suitable computer hardware and configurations for cheminformatics work,” he said.

Computers and drugs are interrelated, he adds.

“Basically, computers are transforming nearly every aspect of drug research and development these days, from identifying brand new therapies to getting them efficiently to market. There are so many ways that technology is boosting the science,” he said.

After he graduates, AlAwadh is headed back to Saudi Arabia to become a professor at his alma mater.

“That has been a long-standing career goal of mine because I am passionate about knowledge dissemination through teaching and mentoring,” he said, adding that his wife, Mona, and their 1-year-old daughter, Yasmin, are with him in Richmond. “I look forward to returning to Saudi Arabia so that my parents can spend precious time with their granddaughter and so Yasmin can grow closer with our entire family.”

Originally published on VCU News (author: Joan Tupponce)