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Dr Musa Hassan on host-pathogen interactions

Why some individuals get sick while others don’t, challenges in science, drug development, and similarities between science and law.

Dr Musa Hassan

Dr Musa Hassan is a Chancellor's Fellow working in host-pathogen interactions at The Roslin Institute. In this interview, he talks with Science Communication Intern Maggie Szymanska about his research.

Could you tell me about your work in a nutshell?

I try to understand why certain individuals get sick while others don't, even when they are exposed to the same pathogen. I also try to find out why only certain strain(s) of a pathogen can cause disease while others don't. So, in a nutshell, I study the biology that underpins the different outcomes of host-pathogen encounters by looking at the biological processes occurring in both the host and pathogen during an infection.

How did you become interested in this work?

My interest in host-pathogen interactions started during my MSc studies, where I investigated why some mice are resistant to African trypanosomiasis, which causes sleeping sickness.

What are the applications of your work?

By understanding the biological processes, both in the host and pathogen, that lead to the development or resolution of disease, I believe that my work can form the foundation for novel disease intervention strategies, including drug and vaccine development.  The methods I use can also be modelled for any pathogen, any animal, or even to plants.

How do you see the future of your research?

In general, novel or drug-resistant pathogens will continue to emerge, but I think the fundamental questions about host-pathogen interactions, or differential susceptibility/virulence will not change. What will change, in my opinion, are the tools available to answer these questions.

For example, in the past people used PCR and microarrays, which had many limitations in terms of the volume of data extracted, to study changes in gene expression. We currently use high throughput RNA-Sequencing, which provide large amounts of high resolution data. Recent technological advances now allow us to even go beyond tissue or cell population level to measure changes in gene expression in individual cells, thereby providing new high resolution methods to answer some long-standing questions on host-pathogen encounters.

What challenges have you experienced in science?

The main challenge is research funding. The number of people going into research is increasing, but the money available for research is not changing. Governments are trying to prioritise, but unfortunately the money available per scientist is not enough. Some of the best science will sometimes not get funded, just because there isn't enough money to go around. That is the biggest challenge in science, which has existed as long as anyone can remember. It is not the lack of ideas, but the lack of funding to turn these ideas into projects.

Another challenge is policy makers and public awareness on the importance of what we do. For example, some people may think that developing a drug to treat cancer is more important and should get more funding than the fundamental research that opened up the path to the drug, just because the drug is tangible and the effect is visible. This can be a problem when resources are being prioritized.

I also think that science in itself is not easy. You have to enjoy it because you will need to continue despite rejection. You need to be able to not take it personally when a paper or grant has been rejected.

And finally, if you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

I always wanted to be a lawyer because growing up, I was surrounded by lawyers. In my opinion, law and science are not that different. They are both based on facts and I tend to like things to follow some logic, to make sense. Law is similar to science in that regard, your feelings are irrelevant if they defy the facts surrounding the subject. For example, climate change is real no matter how much you may not like the idea.

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