Alireza Tafazzol

Alireza Tafazzol: Keller Pathway Fellowship Alumnus
Computer-aided drug design to design novel therapeutic drugs

Note: This interview was conducted in fall 2018. Alireza Tafazzol was a Keller Pathway Fellows in 2018/19.

Alireza Tafazzol is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UC Davis. In his current research, he uses computational techniques and quantum chemistry equations to design novel therapeutic drugs for various diseases such as cancer. He designs potent drugs to activate patients’ immune cells to fight back cancerous cells. 

Last year Tafazzol was the communications director of the Iranian Student Association at UC Davis (SEDAD) and maintained leadership roles in organizing social and cultural events, and scientific talks. He has always been eager to mentor senior undergraduate students to design and manufacture medical devices. In fall 2018 he participated in the Leaders for the Future program. Alireza holds a B.Sc. in mechanical engineering and a M.Sc. in biomechanics. In his free time, he can be found hiking or playing soccer with friends. 

In a nutshell, describe your project or venture.

I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the UC Davis Genome Center. I am also a Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology (DEB) fellow. My research focuses on the development of computational techniques and quantum physics/chemistry equations (i.e., molecular dynamics simulations) for computer-aided drug design to design novel therapeutic drugs. I am passionate about drug discovery and cancer immunotherapy and currently working on TLR4 and PD-1/PD-L1 proteins to cure cancer. My research will facilitate design of novel anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer drugs.

I am really passionate about using cutting-edge computational biology techniques and machine-learning algorithms to design novel drugs for difficult-to-treat cancers in a quicker and cheaper way that would be accessible to more patients in a lower cost.

What’s important about your research or project—and where do you hope to take it?

Drug discovery is the process through which potential new medicines are identified. The traditional scientific disciplines for drug discovery are usually too expensive and time consuming. With the aid of novel computational techniques like molecular dynamics, we can make early drug discovery process at least 30 times quicker and millions of dollars cheaper.

In my current research, I have prepared automated pipelines to conduct molecular dynamics simulations and energy analyses on potential drug candidates for brain tumors and other type of cancers. These small PD-L1 inhibitors will activate our immune T cells to fight glioblastoma cancer cells. This is a collaborative project with an MD in neuro-oncology, Dr. Peter C. Pan. 

What are you most passionate about in your work?

I have the privilege to work with the cutting-edge computational biology techniques and machine-learning algorithms. I am really passionate about how I can use these techniques to design novel drugs for difficult-to-treat cancers in a quicker and cheaper way that would be accessible to more patients in a lower cost. Improving human health has always kept me motivated in my research.

Alireza Tafazzol

What was the most important thing you learned at the Entrepreneurship Academy?

Being an entrepreneur and a successful team leader is not only about scientific achievements. It is more about making a great interdisciplinary team and network. I learned how to expand my networks to include diverse expertise in my team. It was also a great opportunity to practice pitching my idea to a general audience and working to improve it based on mentors’ comments.

What is the most unexpected advice you received from a mentor?

To find potential customers/consumers for my idea and looking more into intellectual properties and copy rights of technologies that I am going to use.

Do you have a project/venture in mind for the Big Bang! Business Competition? How do you expect participation in the Big Bang! workshops and  competition to help you as an aspiring entrepreneur?

I have two ideas to participate in the Big Bang! In the first one, I am trying to develop a computational platform for drug discovery that combines quantum physics/chemistry equations with artificial intelligence to facilitate design of novel drugs at least 30 times quicker and million of dollars cheaper. The second idea involves working in collaboration with another Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering, Amir Bolandparvaz, and a Ph.D. candidate in physics and artificial intelligence, Kevin Aylor. We hope to manufacture a medical device using artificial intelligence algorithms to monitor heart rate and detection of heart attack, especially in the emergency scenarios like ambulances, and help reducing paramedics’ human errors by providing correct dosage of treatments. I am looking forward to using the Big Bang! workshops to improve my ideas and my elevator pitch, and expand my communication skills with broader audiences.

The Keller Pathway Fellowship Program specifically supports women, cross-disciplinary researchers and other underrepresented university-based entrepreneurs. Do you have any insight, experience or concern you’d like to share?

Diversity is an indispensable part of successful teamwork in any discipline. As an immigrant scholar, I am grateful that the Keller Pathway Fellowship Program gives researchers from diverse backgrounds like me the opportunity to be seen and trains us for leadership roles.

How will your experiences as a Keller Pathway Fellow help you to change the world?

The program is giving me the opportunity to work with fellows from diverse disciplines with different approaches to problem solving. Through this experience, I hope to develop skills such as teamwork, leadership, business communication and project management.