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14 April, 2017 - 01:49 By Kate Sweeney

Cambridge Gates scholar targets brain cancer with new drugs

Minaam Abbas Gates scholar by David Powell

Minaam Abbas is yet to start his PhD, but he is already co-founder of two businesses – one of which could transform how cancer is treated.

Minaam, who will begins his PhD at Cambridge this autumn as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, is chief operating officer of angioClast, a company aiming to develop drugs that can target blood vessels in the most aggressive forms of brain cancer.

He is also co-founder of Hazina, a social enterprise that aims to turn microfinance on its head by cutting out the middle man and providing an alternative credit rating for the smallest businesses, while also teaching financial literacy. Hazina has presented its ideas internationally, most recently in Dubai, and plans to launch in various countries in the next two years.

Minaam's PhD will focus on the new field of epitranscriptomics, looking at how RNA can be modified and how these modifications can be used to fight cancer.

Minaam was born and brought up in Karachi, Pakistan. Both of his parents are doctors – his father an gastroenterologist and his mother a GP. Despite being drawn more towards physics and chemistry at school because of their emphasis on discovery, he found himself increasingly interested in biology. Minaam got involved with some of his father's research projects and from his mother's work, he developed an interest in bioethics and wider policy issues. Another inspiration has been his younger brother Sarim who is studying computer science at Yale and whose insight into technological developments have played a big role in Minaam's entrepreneurial work.

The University of Cambridge had always been in his sights since he developed an interest in science. Almost every major scientific discovery Minaam learnt about at school seemed to have happened in Cambridge. It was also one of just a few universities to offer the MB/PhD programme he was interested in.

“It seemed the perfect combination of what a university should be. I wanted to be a doctor and do academic research,” he said.

His interview didn't go to plan, though. He was unable to get a visa in time, but his college agreed to do the interview via Skype. When he was offered a place he also had problems securing funding. Pakistan had a scholarship fund for Cambridge at the time to mark the university's 800th anniversary, but not for medical students. A couple of local business people agreed to comtribute towards his fees. His college, St John's was also supportive.

The first two years of Minaam’s six year course were pre-clinical and in his third year he specialised in neuroscience. This was in large part due to an exchange programme he took part in with Caltech in his second year. There he worked in the Richard Anderson laboratory which is doing pioneering work on brain machine interfaces, for instance, getting people to move prosthetic limbs using brain signals. Minaam's research involved analysing how individual neurons compute movement from sensors hooked up to the brain. On his return to Cambridge Minaam did his third-year thesis on the data collected at the laboratory.

At the same time Minaam was getting involved in medical entrepreneurship. He had taken part in the National Institutes of Health's Neuro START-UP Challenge in his second year. Minaam's team chose to focus on the discovery of biomarkers on the inside of cancer blood vessels in Glioblastoma multiforme, one of the most aggressive forms of brain tumour. Patients diagnosed with the tumour tend to die within one to two years of being diagnosed and the two chemotherapy treatments currently available are fairly blunt instruments to deal with it.

The team decided they might be able to starve the cancer of nutrients by developing a treatment that could target the cancer blood vessels. Their research has recently shown the technique could significantly reduce tumour size. “It's a huge breakthrough,” says Minaam.

With help from the University of Cambridge Judge Business School's accelerator programme the company, angioClast, has been a finalist in several biotech competitions including Pitch@Palace. The competitions brought international exposure and mentors, including AstraZeneca which has helped angioClast to make significant progress. They are seeking to raise money over the coming months to help them conduct the experiments to get the investment they need to turn the research into a therapeutic treatment.

“There is huge excitement and momentum due to the breakthrough we have made,” says Minaam.

With his interest in research impact and entrepreneurship, Minaam applied to work at Professor Tony Kouzarides' laboratory in Cambridge for his PhD. He was drawn by the opportunity to do pioneering research in epitranscriptomics - he will look at how RNA molecules can be modified based on their cell environment and how this applies to stem cells and oncology – and by the laboratory's emphasis on biotech entrepreneurship. 

“It's an amazing opportunity. It's not just about learning core science and discovering something new, but how we can bring these discoveries from the lab bench to the patient's bedside. That is the whole philosophy of the laboratory and it is a perfect match for my interests,” says Minaam.

Minaam is one of 90 new Gates Cambridge Scholars announced this week as part of The Class of 2017. It comprises students from 34 nationalities, and includes the first Native American Scholar, as well as the first ever Scholars from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Luxembourg.

Marina Velickovic, the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from Bosnia and Herzegovina, will do a PhD in International Criminal Law focusing on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia through the lens of gender and ethnicity. Marina has co-authored two books and co-founded the only feminist magazine in Bosnia, She is currently a Visiting Fellow at Goldsmiths College, where she is working on a feminist critique of the legal discourse surrounding conflict-related sexual violence.

Sandile Mtetwa, from Zimbabwe, will do an MPhil in Chemistry focused on improving the properties of photo-active materials used in the process of harnessing clean energy. She is founder of the Trust Simuka-Arise Initiative, in Zimbabwe, which aims to empower young women academically, socially and economically.

Norman Wray from Ecuador is a Constituent Assembly Member and once stood for President of Ecuador. He is a strong advocate of the “Buen Vivir” (Good Living) regime, the rights of nature, and the inclusion of access to water as a human right in the Constitution of Ecuador. His MPhil in Conservation will develop a nature-based, evidence-led approach to the resolution of social, economic, ecological and political problems.

Gates Cambridge is the University of Cambridge’s leading award for international postgraduate students and was set up in October 2000 through a $210m donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -the largest single donation to a UK university. Those selected need to demonstrate not only academic brilliance but outstanding leadership qualities and a commitment to improving the lives of others.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says: “Gates Cambridge Scholars come from all over the world, but they have some important things in common: great leadership potential, a commitment to improving the lives of others and an unparalleled passion for learning. Melinda and I are pleased to welcome the class of 2017. We have no doubt they will have an incredible impact on topics of global importance.”

University of Cambridge Vice-Chancellor and Chair of the Gates Cambridge Board of Trustees Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz added: “Cambridge is a global university and the Gates Cambridge programme epitomises both its international, outward-looking nature and its mission to tackle global challenges and to improve the lives of others.”

The mission of the scholarship is to create a dynamic global network of Scholars who use their intellectual and leadership skills to improve the lives of others. Since 2001 the programme has supported over 1,500 Scholars spanning more than 100 countries. The programme has already spawned several multi-disciplinary, international initiatives founded by groups of Scholars. 

They include Business Weekly award winner Simprints, which provides low-cost, fingerprint scanners for frontline workers in fields such as healthcare, finance and education; Favalley, a social hacking enterprise with the mission of turning slums and favelas around the world into the next Silicon Valleys; Action Meter, an e-democracy web platform for running social campaigns in Estonia; and We are Sister Stories, a digital platform that highlights the strength and resilience of women and girls across the globe.

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Gates scholar, Minaam Abbas. Picture credit – David Powell

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