• January 15, 2024

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Roberto El-Khoury, PhD
Eli Lilly and Company

How did you become interested in the field?

I recall being drawn to the field of oligonucleotide therapeutics in high school biology classes, but it was only years later, when I was offered the opportunity to pursue my PhD under the supervision of Prof. Masad Damha, that I really had the chance to explore the field in more depth. It was through my PhD experience that I realized that I wanted to pursue a long-term career in the field.

Who were your early mentors?

I consider myself very fortunate to have had outstanding mentors throughout my academic path. I would start by acknowledging my high school teachers in Lebanon, Lina Khalaf and Christelle Zeinoun, for teaching with utmost passion and for believing in me. In my undergraduate program, I had the pleasure of working under Prof. Ali Trabolsi on metal-organic knotted structures. My time in his lab introduced me to academic research and innovation and inspired me to pursue my doctoral studies. I would like to especially recognize Prof. Rana Bilbeisi (post-doctoral fellow at the time) for mentoring me throughout my final-year thesis project and instilling the values and work ethic in me to succeed in a research career. Lastly, Prof. Damha’s mentorship has been invaluable to me: the dynamic research environment he provided introduced me to different fields of interest within oligonucleotide chemistry. His expertise in the fields, his enthusiasm, and the breadth of his academic and industry collaborations have certainly inspired me throughout the years.

How did you become involved in OTS?

I first learned about the OTS as soon as I joined the Damha group! To our group, the OTS is a major platform to learn about advances in the field of oligonucleotide therapeutics and to remain connected to other peers. I had the opportunity to present a poster at the OTS 2019 virtual conference and I have remained involved with the OTS since then.

Why do you continue to support the society?

As a junior scientist, I feel the commitment and passion of other OTS members and I admit – it is contagious! I find that the OTS has successfully created platforms to keep its members engaged throughout the year. In 2022, I was fortunate to give a webinar as part of the OTS Trainee Spotlight Series. I also received funding from the OTS Local Delivery Program to support the ‘Therapeutics x LGBTQ2IA+ Symposium’ I co-organized. Overall, I find that the OTS provides great opportunities for personal and professional development, and I am happy to continue supporting the society.

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

In my PhD at McGill University, I focused on studying and stabilizing non-canonical nucleic acids (G-quadruplexes and i-motifs) in vitro. I have also worked on understanding the interactions between i-motif structures and the human telomerase enzyme. What attracted me to this field is that there is still so much to be learned about these structures, their biological roles, and their relevance as therapeutic targets.

In my current role as an advisor at Eli Lilly and Company, I am working on developing oligonucleotide therapeutics for a range of targets. It is an incredible feeling to realize that a molecule I’ve worked may one day become a drug and save lives. It has equally been very rewarding to collaborate with scientists of diverse backgrounds and tackle projects together.

What do you like to do in your free time?

In my free time, I enjoy hiking, traveling HIIT workouts, and baking. I also recently started taking salsa dance classes.

I’m currently reading “How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery” by Kevin Ashton, and I would certainly recommend it to my fellow scientists.