Ahead of Cancer

Originally from Lebanon, Nataly Naser Al Deen ’13 decided to pursue a career in cancer research while dissecting a kidney tumor as part of an oncology course at AUC, where she shadowed leading doctors that conducted applied research at the 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital.

“I was convinced that the tumor was the smaller structure, compared to the massive size of the kidney,” she said. “To my surprise, the smaller structure was the actual kidney itself, which belonged to a 3-month-old baby. I knew then that I had found my calling.”

Since then, Naser Al Deen has dedicated her studies and career to focus on cancer research, hoping to defeat this fatal disease. “Before becoming involved in actual research, I felt the most I could do to help a cancer patient was superficial at best, but after dissecting tumors with my own hands, I learned that life is not only about empathy. It is about going behind the closed doors of a lab attempting to seek new techniques, to fight cancer through solid research,” said Naser Al Deen, who majored in biology as part of AUC’s pre-medical track, with a minor in both psychology and chemistry, and was a recipient of the Middle East Partnership Initiative Tomorrow’s Leaders Scholarship at AUC.   

AUC: Passion for Research

With her mother working at the Lebanese Red Cross and an uncle as a neuro-surgeon and the other a medical lab physician, Naser Al Deen was fascinated with science and medicine as a child. “I was impressed by their work and wanted to impact the medical and research field myself,” she said. “Growing up, I remember the library at my grandparents’ house with medical and biology books that belonged to my mother and maternal uncles. I used to flip the books with fascination, looking at the images that seemed like magic to me.” 

With this childhood interest, Naser Al Deen was set on studying biology in college. “I knew I wanted to major in biology, but I always thought I was going to become a medical doctor … until I came to AUC and found my passion for research,” said Naser Al Deen, whose undergraduate thesis at AUC with Dr. Suher Zada focused on liver cancer.  

After graduation, Naser Al Deen received a Fulbright scholarship to pursue her master’s in tumor biology from Georgetown University, where she tested effective strategies for the treatment of triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), which represents about 15 – 20 percent of malignant breast cancers. TNBC is highly aggressive and is characterized by a number of poor prognostic features. She is currently a PhD student in the American University of Beirut’s Department of Biology, where she is studying tumor initiation in normal breast cancer cells, hoping to develop mechanisms that would reverse this initiation process.

“I attended many educational institutions, from AUC and my semester abroad at the University of South Carolina to my master’s in Georgetown and currently AUB,” reflected Naser Al Deen. “AUC nourished by passion for research, and I am very grateful for that. Not all institutions encourage their undergraduate students to engage in basic research like AUC does. I am oftentimes reminded of AUC’s research community when I teach introductory biology laboratory to AUB students. It is more common for my students to apply to medical school rather than study the research aspect of biology. For many reasons, I am appreciative of AUC’s biology program that helped me delve deep into the world of science and, of course, research.”

For Naser Al Deen, AUC was not just about research. “I loved participating in International Day and performing the Lebanese dabka in front of the whole University,” she said. “I also made best friends at AUC, where we shared amazing memories like studying at the dorms, going to the gym, sprinting to the Pepsi Gate to catch the bus going to Zamalek, Al Rehab or City Stars. I recently visited Cairo in January 2016, and I went to every spot we used to go to, where it felt like home for four years of my life.”

Ultimately, Naser Al Deen plans to leverage her postdoctoral training by conducting research at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center or Harvard Medical School. “My goal is to pursue a career in tumor pharmacology and drug discovery,” she said. “I am dedicating my life to becoming a cancer researcher.”

Pink Steps

Naser Al Deen is not only making breakthroughs in the medical field; she is also the founder of Pink Steps, a breast cancer project in Lebanon that empowers female cancer survivors by offering a healthier life style and better quality of life. “When my first cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was devastated and felt paralyzed that whatever my contributions to cancer research are, they might be too late to help my own cousin,” noted Naser Al Deen. “My cousin is very brave, always smiling and full of hope, but I could feel that she was scared and needed a change. That was when I thought of creating Pink Steps to empower breast cancer survivors and offer them a healthier lifestyle.”

Funded by the United States Department Fulbright Alumni Community Action Grant, Pink Steps increases the fitness level of cancer survivors through daily walks performed by the participants at home or at work, and monitored by pedometers. “The participants start with 5,000 steps a day and increase it gradually to 10,000 steps, which is the standard count for a person to be considered physically active,” explained Naser Al Deen. “Participants also meet for outdoor walks and group exercises like yoga, Zumba, belly dancing and classes that include stretching and core workouts. After the sessions, we have a 30-minute nutrition or reflection session.”

The long-term benefits of the Pink Steps fitness project include boosting patients’ immune system, reducing fatigue, improving their sleep cycle and increasing health-related quality of life. “We all forget about the fact that the participants are cancer survivors when we are walking on the green field or exercising in the activity room,” said Naser Al Deen. “They are fit, strong, energetic and full of life! I recall one participant telling me how exercising always felt like an impossible mountain to climb. Today, she feels healthier and stronger.”

For Naser Al Deen, Pink Steps is working to challenge the misconception that cancer patients should not exercise or become physically active. “Patients who get sick should not just sit at home; they need to exercise and eat healthy to feel stronger and more fit,” affirmed Naser Al Deen. “I feel responsible for affecting wide-scale change in my community, and this is just one step forward to add to the great contributions being done in this field.”

MEPI

MEPI TL project is funded through the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative(MEPI). MEPI is a unique program designed to engage directly with and invest in the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). MEPI works to create vibrant partnerships with citizens to foster the development of pluralistic, participatory, and prosperous societies throughout the MENA region. To do this, MEPI partners with local, regional and international nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, academic institutions and governments.