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Abedawn Khalaf in the lab
Dr Abedawn Khalaf CChem MRSC

Abedawn’s career has included lecturing in a war zone and making anti-inflammatories from the secretions of parasitic worms.

“Preparing course material by candle-light at night while there were running gun battles outside our house was a major challenge.”

Final year undergraduates at Salahaddin University, 1988

Abedawn’s career path has been far from easy. Born in Karbala, Iraq, he gained a BSc from Baghdad University, and moved to Scotland to continue studying after 18 months of National Service in the army. Abedawn studied organic photochemistry at Dundee University, under Dr William Horspool, and gained an MSc and PhD. After a year of post-doctoral work, he went back to Iraq to lecture at Salahaddin University. The area was in the middle of two different sets of warring opponents, and it is here that Abedawn had to prepare course materials by candle-light at night, and beware of fighter jets overhead in the day. Despite everything, Abedawn was a lecturer, researcher and supervisor to final year students at the university for four years.

The time came for Abedawn to leave Iraq – however the best way out was over the high mountains in the north of the country:

“The only refuge available was found at the hands of the main enemy of Iraq at that stage - and that was Iran. Mules were the best (and only) means of transport across the mountains from the east over the passes into Iran and the perilous journey had to be conducted under the cover of nightfall.  It took seven nights to reach Iran.”

From Iran back to Dundee with his wife and family was another long journey, fraught with difficulties. Travelling via Syria and Cyprus, Abedawn finally returned to the UK.

Research - drugs, DNA and worms

Abedawn Khalaf in front of the University of Strathcylde Chemistry DepartmentSoon afterwards, he took up a research fellowship at the University of Strathclyde with Professor Suckling. Since then, he has worked on many projects including making drugs for treating malaria, sleeping sickness, schizophrenia and arthritis. The latter made use of the secretions of a particular worm: the parasitic filarial nematode worm secretes a large molecule that stops the huge inflammatory response that the worms would otherwise produce, and a synthetic version of the molecule could potentially be used as an anti-inflammatory drug. 

As well as the many publications and patents from his research, a biopharmaceutical company was set up as a result of Abedawn and colleagues’ research on antibacterial agents, which work by binding to certain parts of DNA. One of Abedawn’s DNA-binding drugs has been approved for clinical trials as a new class of antibiotic for the treatment of Clostridium difficile (C. diff)

Abedawn continues to work in the pure and applied chemistry division of Strathclyde University, synthesising new molecules and researching cures for major diseases.

Words by Jenifer Mizen
Images © Anne Purkiss / Royal Society of Chemistry
Published January 2014

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