By joining the Science division at NYU Abu Dhabi in January 2019, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Alan Healy has found a place for ambitious research with the potential to transform global human health.
I decided to join NYU Abu Dhabi because I was looking for an institution that was excited by and supportive of ambitious research programs. My research group studies natural products — small molecules produced by natural sources such as bacteria, fungi, and plants.
Natural products have proven to be incredibly important for human health; they provide around 60 percent of all approved therapeutics. What’s more, there’s a growing understanding that the natural products produced by the estimated 30 trillion bacteria or more that reside in and on the human body play a tremendous role in human health. Already, for example, they’ve been linked to the development of a range of diseases including cancer, neurological disorders and obesity.
Before joining NYU Abu Dhabi I was working as part of a multidisciplinary team at Yale University, studying the link between a small molecule toxin produced by select strains of bacteria in the human gut and the development of colorectal cancer. We discovered that the toxin damages the DNA of the epithelial cells lining the colon. This discovery will enable the development of more advanced diagnostic tests and targeted therapeutics for colorectal cancer. It was a very successful research program, but it required a team of researchers and significant resources just to study one molecule, albeit a very biologically relevant one. This highlighted to me that the outstanding challenge in this area is actually the development of an efficient platform to not only study one natural product, but tens or even hundreds.
Contemporary scientific research requires conversation and collaboration. That’s why NYU Abu Dhabi encourages research and teaching from an interdisciplinary standpoint. We believe integrated research is needed to address some of the most pressing issues affecting the planet, and to further our understanding of the world.
With state-of-the-art research facilities and core technology platforms, the University has attracted leading scientists to do cutting-edge research here — whether it be drug discovery, genomics or environmental sustainability. Scientifically and geographically, NYU Abu Dhabi is ideally positioned to share world-changing scholarship, and broaden the conversations of discovery beyond borders of nations and disciplines.
There have been exponential advances in genome sequencing technology which have enabled researchers to rapidly sequence the DNA of microbes directly from the environment. This has revealed that we’ve only studied a fraction of the microbial ecosystem. It’s estimated we’ve isolated less than 10 percent of natural products produced by the chemical factories encoded in the genomes of this vast microbial community. It’s a very exciting time in this area of research. If we can develop a method to access this reservoir of untapped natural products, we could discover a treasure trove of bioactive molecules which could be repurposed as novel therapeutics. On top of that, we’ll gain a better understanding of how microbes use these molecules to interact with their environment, in particular the human body.
It’s an ambitious and challenging project. To make progress, we need to harness the latest technological advances in genome sequencing, bioinformatics, synthetic automation and high throughput screening. Fortunately NYU Abu Dhabi has the vision and willingness to support and invest in big ideas like these, and that was a major factor in why I chose to come here. We have excellent core technology facilities, supported by a talented group of researchers who collaborate with us to drive our research forward.
NYU Abu Dhabi has the vision and willingness to support and invest in big ideas.
The University is full of very talented and motivated people who have all made an active decision to be here. Because we’re not siloed, in the science division and across the institution as a whole, I get the opportunity to interact every day with colleagues from different disciplines. It’s very rewarding. Chemical biology and drug discovery is a big focus within the NYU global network. It’s exciting to be part of a network of faculty all working toward a common goal of improving human health, and to be tackling it in innovative and exciting ways.
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