Leonora Abdullahu
  • OTS
  • August 1, 2023

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Leonora Abdullahu

Leonora Abdullahu, PhD
Genetic Medicines Search and Evaluation
Eli Lilly & Company

How did you become interested in the field?

In September 2016, I joined Prof. Masad Damha’s lab at McGill University as a graduate student. To my luck, the Annual OTS meeting was being held that month, in Montreal, with Dr. Damha serving on the organizing committee. I attended the meeting and tried to grasp as much as I could from this field that was completely new to me – until then, my training had been in synthetic and materials chemistry. The energy and the excitement at that meeting were unparalleled. Eteplirsen had just been approved for the treatment of DMD that month, with Nusinersen being approved for SMA a few short months later – the field was absolutely buzzing. This set the tone for the remainder of my grad studies and solidified my interest in the field.

Who were your early mentors?

My undergraduate thesis supervisor, Prof. Alex Adronov and his student Dr. Sabrina van Gyzen gave me my first hands-on research experience in their lab at McMaster University. This experience made me realize that I enjoyed working in a lab setting and wanted to pursue graduate studies in a chemistry lab. Dr. Damha was, and continues to be, a mentor of high impact in my life. He is a great advocate for the field and really prioritizes giving his students the exposure and experience necessary to succeed in the field. Through his guidance, I feel I have established a well-rounded skill set that I feel confident will allow me to succeed in whichever direction my career takes me (ideally in the oligo world!).

How did you become involved in OTS?

Through attending the meetings and interacting with other junior members, I became interested in taking a more active role with the OTS and applied for a Trainee Rep position in 2020. I’ve enjoyed having a voice on the BOD and planning and executing events that engage other trainees by showcasing the exciting research happening at the trainee level.

Why do you continue to support the society?

The OTS is a unique organization that, in my opinion, does the best job at bringing in research from both academia and industry and allowing both sides to interact and learn from each other. From the industry perspective that I now have, I appreciate even more the value of being up-to-date with the innovative research happening in academic labs, especially in the relatively novel field that we’re in.

This work needs to continue to be highlighted so that the field can continue to advance.

What is special about the type of research/work you have done? 

Nucleic acid chemistry is one of the main pillars that has allowed us to develop commercial oligo drugs. These drugs could not exist without the chemical modifications we have developed, since unmodified RNA or DNA would simply get degraded in our bodies. What’s special about the work I’m currently doing in External Innovation at Eli Lilly, is that it allows us to partner with biotech’s in the field that have assets aligned with Lilly’s strategic goals and internal discovery efforts, and provide them with the resources and expertise to bring those assets to the market. This really expedites the drug discovery process, allowing us to make leaps instead of steps!

What do you like to do in your free time?

I enjoy down time with family, road trips, and exploring new cities.

Any other fun facts/tidbits you would like us to know!

My partner and I are in a constant online chess duel. We are both in the 600-point range with little experience, but a lot of competitiveness, which makes for fun matches.