Student plaque attack research earns international raves

- September 18, 2012

Dal student Farhan Khan. (Kevin Hartford photo)
Dal student Farhan Khan. (Kevin Hartford photo)

Fusobacterium nucleatum is a major contributor to the buildup of plaque in the human mouth. It’s also the basis for award-winning research by Dal student Farhan Khan, who has been examining the construction of single-chain antibodies to fight this persistent species of bacteria.

In February, Khan was awarded the Canadian Association for Dental Research’s 2012 International Association for Dental Research (IADR)/Unilever Divisional Award, earning him the opportunity to represent Canada in the IADR/Unilever Hatton Competition in Iguazu Falls, Brazil this summer.  

It was in Iguazu Falls that Khan, a medical student who completed his master's degree in Dal’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, took second place in the competition’s senior basic science category. He was competing against 27 other researchers from across the world.

“I didn’t expect to win,” he says. “Everyone there was the best in the world. I met a lot of very bright young people.”

He was also able to take in the sights: Iguazu Falls itself, which is comprised of 150-300 separate waterfalls depending on the water level; the Itaipu Dam, one of the world’s largest hydroelectric dams; and the Triple Frontier, a spot where the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet.

Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company best known for Ben & Jerry’s, Dove, and Hellmann’s products, covered Khan’s return airfare and four-night hotel stay in Brazil. “I went down with my parents,” says Khan, who was born and raised in Dartmouth. “They’re both retired, so it was great — they had a vacation. It was a great trip.”

Preventing plaque buildup

Khan’s research identifies antibodies that can stick to F. nucleatum and prevent it from binding with other plaque-building bacteria. He’s interested in vaccine development: “It’s interesting to be able to not only try to create a treatment for a disease, but to prevent it from the onset.”

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is what drew Khan to Dal. “We’re trying to create a live oral vaccine for to prevent whooping cough.” Current prevention methods are limited to injections, which he says, “can be painful and quite difficult to administer in third world countries, where it’s hard to transport a vaccine and refrigerate it. A live oral vaccine is expressed in a bacteria so you don’t have to refrigerate it and it’s easier to transport, you can take a tablet and put it in your mouth. It’s much easier.”

Mr. Khan defended his thesis, entitled “Construction and Characterization of a Single-Chain Variable Fragment Antibody Library against Fusbacterium nucleatum,” on July 26 and is now a student in the Faculty of Medicine. He sees his MD as an extension of his research plans.

“If you set your mind to something, you can do anything. You can save lives. A doctor has maybe hundreds of patients throughout their career, but with research you have the opportunity to affect millions of patients throughout your lifetime.”


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