Research interest led to publications, patents, and OUM

Curiosity: It’s a trademark of those who practice the science of medicine. It’s the fuel behind research discoveries in the lab and the motivation behind the successful diagnosis of a puzzling patient condition.

Khatija Ali, MD

“Growing up, my parents encouraged us to be curious,” says Khatija Pinky Ali, MD, OUM Academic Advisor and Mini-Case Facilitator for the Cardiovascular, Neurology, and Respiratory system-based modules (SBM). “I come from a very philosophical family. We were taught to think abstractly,” she says of growing up near Toronto, in Canada’s Ontario province. “I became interested in philosophy during high school and originally intended to pursue a PhD in Philosophy when I began at McMaster University.”

But nearing the end of her first year, Dr. Ali’s study of philosophy was interrupted when her father was taken to the ER. After being undetected and misdiagnosed for almost five years, it was during that ER visit that he was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. After a year of chemotherapy, not only did the cancer remain, but it had spread throughout his body and reached Stage 4. Even a trip to China for experimental treatment proved unsuccessful. Instead, his cancer grew. He died soon afterwards.

Mystery phone call

The summer after completing her undergraduate degree – in Philosophy – Dr. Ali received a random telephone call from a medical school in Aruba, Xavier University School of Medicine. The admissions representative told her that the school had been trying to reach her to follow up on her request for information.

But she hadn’t requested information. Dr. Ali eventually realized that it had been her father who put in the request. Regardless, she became interested. Within a week, she was accepted and was on a plane to Aruba.

“I wouldn’t recommend putting yourself through that,” says Dr. Ali. “But having been a Philosophy major, I needed to do serious catch-up on science prerequisites in order to be ready to begin a medical school curriculum.” So, she was anxious to get started.

After her first two years of medical school, while preparing for USMLE Step 1, Dr. Ali and other fellow students were broadsided when the school announced it would double tuition costs for the coming year. She needed an alternative. Dr. Ali was accepted as a transfer student at Windsor University School of Medicine on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts – 47 days later, she sat for and passed USMLE Step 1.

“During my Internal Medicine rotation in Houston, Texas, while in the CCU, I got involved in one of those cases that changed my life,” she says. “A 67-year-old patient with vascular problems was headed to the OR for a CABG (coronary artery bypass graft). The attending had acknowledged my interest and concern for the patient and asked if I wanted to scrub in. As he was nearing the end of the procedure, he said to me ‘I’d like you to restart his heart.’ Not to be corny, but that was my moment of clarity. That began my love of the OR. I knew I wanted to be a surgeon.” And she hadn’t even done her surgical rotation, yet. But it came up soon, followed by electives in anesthesia and vascular surgery.

Entrepreneurial MD

During all that time in the OR with attending physicians, residents, and other medical students, there was often discussion about what would make life easier, how could procedures be modified to better help patients. One such discussion began with the vision to create a human heart, inspired by a patient, but Dr. Ali and colleagues quickly learned the tremendous obstacles involved. While that heart remains the ultimate vision, it led to Dr. Ali’s today being the founder of BioSapien, a young biomedical corporation which utilizes biodegradable polymers and tissue/pharmaceutical engineering to produce alternative, largely surgical, patient care solutions. The company operates out of the Princeton Innovation Center Biolabs, which supports early-stage science startups with high potential.

BioSapien’s initial focus is on BioMesh, a biodegradable gauze-like product used for localized drug delivery in terminal cancer patients. A provisional US patent has been filed and its infringement search (Freedom to Operate – FTO) is pending. The Canadian patent will also be filed.

“Infused with chemotherapy, the mesh is used like a bandage during surgery. It is wrapped around a tumorous area to provide very targeted therapy that doesn’t lead to the immunodeficiencies and side effects typically associated with cancer treatment,” explains Dr. Ali. Because the product currently focuses on treatment of terminally ill colon and pancreatic cancer patients who have largely exhausted treatment options, BioMesh is on a faster track to market, possibly reaching animal testing in late 2019 and clinical trials in 2020.

BioSapien also has a provisional patent pending for BioOsteo, a biodegradable surgical implant device as an alternative to metal implants after serious fractures. BioOsteo releases antibiotics and a patient’s own stem cells to promote healing. It degenerates within the body 4-5 years post-surgery. BioSapien’s other products under development include biodegradable blood vessel capabilities and the possibility of utilizing the mesh technology for pain management.

Early research interest

Before leaving Xavier, as Student Government President, Dr. Ali and fellow classmates got involved with community clinics, including one specifically for employees of a local Hyatt resort. At its completion, the students noticed there had been a high prevalence of obesity in the Hyatt employee population and many also had BMIs of 40-plus and/or diabetes. In discussing this with their instructors, Xavier’s research chair recommended that they write up what they found. This became the first of Dr. Ali’s now 21 publications, less than two years after graduating from medical school.

“I see research and the resulting publications as the way to make a larger impact, to affect more patients,” says Dr. Ali. She advises students that being in a hospital setting during rotations is a great place to get involved with publications. “Attendings always have cases that could be of interest to others, but they typically don’t have time to write. Make an effort to listen for these opportunities and let them know your willingness to help. Being involved in research shows that you are well-rounded, not just book smart. By my fourth year, faculty members were remembering the cases and papers I had helped with and sometimes approached me directly. They just don’t have time to do the writing,” she explains.

In addition to her duties at OUM and BioSapien, Dr. Ali continues as a research associate in both the department of trauma surgery at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and the department of vascular surgery at McMaster University. In both settings, she coordinates activities ranging from collecting and analyzing data, to scheduling and screening study participants, assisting with report writing, and maintaining databases, among many other duties.

Flexibility is appreciated

Dr. Ali began at OUM in 2017 as a mini case discussion facilitator and taught the Renal SBM in Term 1706. Paula Diamante, MD, OUM’s Director of Faculty Affairs and a mentor of Dr. Ali’s at Xavier, placed the call when the University needed discussion facilitators. She knew that Dr. Ali had served in that role at other institutions. Today, between her work with BioSapien, current publication projects, her OUM advisees, and case discussion preparation, just like her students Dr. Ali has to be a master of time management. Also, like many OUM students, she finds the flexibility of the online curriculum – for herself and her students – to be a great benefit, especially together with the supportive resources provided to students.

“The ability to combine real-time and recorded lectures in a way that students may meet, learn, and study on their own time is amazing. It really is a brilliant set-up,” says Dr. Ali.

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(August 2019)