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Battling Leukemia at AUBMC

Ali Bazarbachi’s Pioneering Research
The AUB Medical Center is on the cutting-edge of cancer research because of faculty members like Dr. Ali A. Bazarbachi, associate professor of hematology and oncology. His main interest lies in blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphomas, and he has chosen one of the most difficult cancers to tackle: adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma (ATL), a disease particularly resistant to chemotherapy. Dogged in the pursuit of answers that will help curtail patient suffering, Bazarbachi has made three important discoveries, one of which in May 2002 won him the distinguished biennial Hafez Kobeisi Award for the best scientific article published by a Lebanese national anywhere in the world. The first discovery, which he described in a New England Journal of Medicine article, was that ATL, caused by a viral infection, can be treated with anti-viral therapy, without chemotherapy, to improve a patient’s chances of survival. However, after one to three years of the anti-viral treatment, patients frequently relapse. Bazarbachi has risen to this new challenge by expanding his earlier research and making a second discovery—that arsenic can provide beneficial treatment. He described these findings in Blood, the journal of the American Society of Hematology, in 1999 and 2000. For this groundbreaking work, he received the Kobeisi Award. Bazarbachi’s research collaborator is Dr. Marwan El Sabban, associate professor of human morphology at AUB. Together they are now seeking ways to cut off vital blood supplies to the cancerous cells by targeting the new blood vessels they establish. If these vessels can be stopped from functioning, the cancerous cells will die. Their third significant discovery about blood cancer results from findings on how leukemia cells and vessel cells interact. This yielded another paper, this time in the May 2002 issue of Blood. “We are deciphering the signals that are exchanged between the cells—learning how the normal and abnormal cells actually talk to each other,” says Dr. Bazarbachi. “Once we know that, we can interrupt that conversation and stop the blood nourishing the cancer.”As a student in 1981, Bazarbachi was ranked number one in the scientific section of the Lebanese Baccalaureate. He went on to complete his MD in St. Etienne, followed by a residency at the University of Paris, where he received the doctorat d’etat en medicine in 1993.Along the way to his PhD he completed master’s degrees in human biology, hematology, genetics, and immunology.

Since joining AUB in 1996, Bazarbachi has won other honors for his research, including the Erwin Eiwan Award at the 10th International Conference on Human Retroviorology in Dublin, 2001, and the CEDRE (the joint French-Lebanese intergovernmental research program) Award for Excellence in Scientific Research, in 2002. Bazarbachi now spreads his considerable energies among research, teaching, and clinical practice in the Department of Internal Medicine, where he also heads the bone marrow transplant program. His research, carried out in the core facility lab in the Diana Tamari Sabbagh Building, has been strongly supported by several sources. Funding has been provided by AUB’s Medical Practice Plan and University Research Board, the Lebanese National Research Council, CEDRE, the Diana Tamari Sabbagh Foundation, Massabki, the Terry Fox Research Fund, and the Eli Lilly International Foundation. Taking a look at the future of medicine in Lebanon, Bazarbachi cites the negative impact of the “brain drain” on the research and development that is essential to make progress. “Students are not receptive to research options for their future. They want to go to the United States” after graduation, he says, because of the relatively low salaries in Lebanon, a work environment of little variety and availability, and the difficulty in developing a career. Progress will be slow unless Dr. Bazarbachi says AUB can get and keep some of the best people in research. For him this is one of the University’s most daunting challenges.” Bazarbachi has accepted the challenge himself and committed to a long-term contract with AUB. Top students at AUB today can look forward to being mentored by exceptional faculty members like Dr. Ali Bazarbachi, caring physician and internationally renowned medical scientist. Likewise, AUB can count on Bazarbachi and his colleagues to ensure it remains the top medical institution in the region, one where sophisticated research continues to provide real hope in the battle against the most serious diseases.