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Diaspo #177 : Abdelfattah El Ouaamari, from Morocco to the US, on the path to victory against diabetes

A PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology based in the United States, Moroccan Abdelfattah El Ouaamari is fascinated with biochemistry. This passion led him to a special field of research, linked to diabetes. Currently Assistant Professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, he conducting his own research to understand this disease and thus achieve a cure, without resorting to insulin.

Abdelfattah El Ouaamari, a PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology based in the United States. / DR
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This year, insulin, discovered in 1921, will celebrate its centenary. This hormone naturally secreted by the pancreas and playing a key role in maintaining normal blood sugar levels still fascinates many researchers, including Moroccan Abdelfattah El Ouaamari.

Born and raised in Nador, he has long been interested in diabetes. More specifically, his research aims to understand how insulin-secreting beta cells, located in the islets of Langerhans of the pancreas, increase their growth and function in states of insulin resistance.

After primary and secondary studies in his hometown until the age of 18, then a higher education certificate in Biology and Geology at the Mohammed I University of Oujda, the young Moroccan wanted to pursue pharmacy studies in Rabat. Fascinated by biochemistry, he completely changed his mind and eventually decided to go study in France.

His new path led him to Nice, where he joined the prestigious University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, where he obtained an undergraduate degree. Abdelfattah El Ouaamari would then go on to study for a master’s degree in life and health sciences and complete a PhD in the same city. «I was invested in the topic and I really liked research. So I did a doctoral thesis in the field of Cellular and Molecular Biology», he told Yabiladi.

«I was very lucky to join the laboratory of Professor Emmanuel Van Obberghen for my thesis work. It wasan internationally renowned research laboratory that works on everything related to insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity».

Abdelfattah El Ouaamari

Cellular and molecular ways to generate insulin-producing cells

In 2010, the Moroccan made a decision: he would «take a big leap», leaving France for the United States. In his new country of adoption, he began a postdoctoral fellowship at the prestigious Harvard University, where he spent six years. «In terms of career development, in the United States there are many more ways to fund research and opportunities to grow», he recalled.

In 2013, he became a Harvard Medical instructor, and could apply for funding. His ambition led him, three years later, to apply for the post of Assistant Professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University in New Jersey. «I am working on the neuromodulation of pancreatic beta cells. Unlike back in Boston, I am independent today, I run my own laboratory with my own funding», he explained.

To Abdelfattah El Ouaamari, even if the discovery of pancreatic islets dates back over 150 years, «we still do not know why we become diabetic». He believes that unraveling the mysteries of this disease represents a «challenge and an intellectual challenge» and that «if one day we manage to understand it in more detail, we will be able to cure it».

«There is obviously the intellectual stimulation that any researcher experiences in the process of functioning, but also this desire to find better therapeutic means other than injecting insulin every day.My research work is precisely focused on the regeneration of beta cells that produce insulin».

Abdelfattah El Ouaamari

«If one day we manage to understand how these cells regenerate, we can very well consider producing them on a large scale for transplantation in diabetic patients so as to no longer have to resort to insulin», said the Moroccan scientist. His research granted him several awards and distinctions, such as the Outstanding Research Award at Joslin Diabetes Center in 2016, the Human Islet Research Network New Investigator Award in 2018 or the National Institutes of Health R01 Grant Award.

Morocco, vaccines and scientific research

Asked about his links with his country of origin, Abdelfattah El Ouaamari regrets not «having professional relations with Morocco». «Obviously I have family and friends there. I go home to see them as soon as I have the chance. But it's something that I'm trying to develop», he explained, recalling that he belongs to a community of Moroccan-American skilled professionals. As such, he tries to identify fellow Moroccan researchers for potential collaborations.

The young scientist also insists on the importance of scientific research for the Kingdom.»It is extremely important to develop scientific research in Morocco. I think it exists, but it is not yet developed enough», he emphasized. He recalled in this regard that «all Moroccans manage to do a maximum of things even with a minimum of means». «We still have the ambition to go further. We must therefore change the paradigm and invest in research», he pleaded.

«The culture must change vis-à-vis scientific research: it is investing in the long term. China, a few years ago, was not considered a developed country. They started to invest in innovation and research. As a result, China is catching up and even overtaking the United States!», the Moroccan scientist concludes.

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