USciences PhD Graduate is Driven to Find Cure for HIV, Cancer

By Erin O'Boyle

Published on November 19, 2019

Weam ElbezantiWhen asked about her career goals, Weam Elbezanti PhD’19 (cell and molecular biology) aims high.

“My long-term research interests involve solving clinically-relevant problems, specifically characterizing the molecular mechanism of a disease and understanding how to develop new therapeutics that will positively impact patients. I also would like to complete my scientific journey by conducting studies to arrive at a cure for the sufferers of the HIV-1 virus,” she said.

It may seem like a daunting task to most people, but Dr. Elbezanti is already making strides in that direction. “I discovered that clinically prescribed benzodiazepines may be useful as part of a cure for HIV-1 infection,” she said. “I created a completely new viral strain that will be important in studying the effects of the RUNX1 transcription factor on HIV-1.”

Weam Elbezanti in the labIn addition to numerous awards in the scientific retreats for biology, chemistry & biochemistry, and pharmaceutics, she has co-authored three publications, achieved first place in her poster presentation in 2018, and had her research selected as one of the 10 best studies at USciences.

Today, Dr. Elbezanti works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, in the hematology department. She is working on genetic engineering using lentiviral vectors and cloning to design novel chimeric antigen receptor T cells (CAR-T) which can then be used to treat leukemia and lymphoma.

Originally from Libya, Dr. Elbezanti graduated seventh in her class from the University of Tripoli (Al-Fateh) in 1998, with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy (PharmB). During her time as an undergraduate, she used theoretical pharmaceutical sciences to better understand disease pathologies and treatment regimens associated with those diseases. She quickly realized biomedical sciences was the career path she wanted to pursue.

Weam Elbezanti and her familyDr. Elbezanti worked as a local pharmacist for three years, where her desire to contribute to the field of science and therapeutics grew. In 2008, she received a scholarship to earn a graduate degree abroad. In 2009, she began studying at the University of Delaware, in the department of biological sciences. There, she was mentored by Kenneth van Golen, PhD, and worked on a research project involving the study of inflammatory breast cancer, which has greater incidence in Dr. Elbezanti’s home country of Libya, as well as other North African countries.

In 2011, civil war broke out in Dr. Elbezanti’s native Libya. “It was the worst experience I have ever had to endure,” she said. “It was a struggle to get through each day and, at times, I felt as though I wanted to give up my dreams.” 

Despite this, Dr. Elbezanti was able to maintain a 3.8 GPA, author a publication, and defend her thesis in the spring of 2012 to get a Masters in Science (MS) in Cell and Organ Systems. She also went on to continue her education, pursuing a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology at USciences. She said this was a way to better understand the molecular aspects of any disease and therefore can find a cure for that disease.

Dr. Elbezanti was mentored by Zachary Klase, PhD, whose lab studies HIV-1 latency, in an effort to better understand the virus. 

“Our lab is currently funded by a National Institute on Drug Abuse director’s program grant that was awarded, in part, because of the data that Weam has generated,” said Dr. Klase. “This speaks very highly of the importance and quality of her work.” 

One of the top students in the USciences’ graduate-level biotechnology course, Dr. Elbezanti “was never content to rest on this accomplishment and always came to my office to examine her tests and learn where she could further improve,” Dr. Klase added.

In addition to her work at Penn, Dr. Elbezanti is also a part-time adjunct professor at USciences. “I teach biotechnology course for grad students and at the same time I am teaching Topics on Biotechnology for undergrads.” Her course focuses on recombinant DNA, recombinant antibodies, genetic engineering, and diagnostics in medicine.

When asked where she sees herself in five to ten years, Dr. Elbezanti’s answer is simple, yet ambitious. “With God’s help, I will have completed a postdoc,” she said.” I will also be working on and hopefully contributing to successful studies concerning a cure for AIDS. In addition, I would like to have established my own laboratory for research. My passion for teaching continues and I hope to teach this beautiful science to newer and newer generations.”

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