Unlocking New Ways to Prevent and Treat Illness
In 2013, a team at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois at Peoria performed groundbreaking surgery on a toddler. The 2-year old became the youngest person to receive a trachea transplant. But there was an additional breakthrough — the girl also was the first child to receive a tissue-engineered trachea without any donor cells.
Feras Altwal M.S.’14 was part of that team, participating in the pre-and post-op research, as well as the actual operation. That helped chart his future.
“It is because of the lasting impact this surgery made on me that I became certain of my will to incorporate clinical work in my future career,” the native of Jordan said at the time.
That impact led to a doctorate and post-doc fellowship studying stem cells, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in suburban Chicago.
Earlier this year, he moved from academia to the private sector as a field application scientist for a biotech company specializing in scientific instrumentation for researchers. He helps pharmaceutical firms, universities’ research labs and other companies to establish and troubleshoot their protein purification protocols by using their technology.
“In this job you get exposed to different types of research,” Altwal said. “And I get to help all these different research labs with their needs and learn from them. It’s very rewarding.”
His earlier research aimed at developing a Parkinson’s drug to reduce side effects from current medications. He anticipated researching stem cells in Alzheimer’s treatment until the global pandemic shuttered many projects.
“I enjoyed asking questions and then trying to find the answers for them. I was always curious but I wanted to solve problems that had an impact,” Altwal said. “That’s the main drive for me. The other aspect is teaching. I always feel there’s a responsibility for me to pass this knowledge along.”
After gaining his undergraduate degree in Jordan, he did research and clinical trials using stem cells. A visiting U.S. surgeon, affiliated with the University of Illinois College of Medicine-Peoria and OSF, urged him to come to this country and offered a research opportunity.
“Especially when you come from another country, usually you look at Chicago,” Altwal said. “I moved to Peoria instead. I didn't have any plans to go to Bradley.”
That changed when he and the physician met Craig Cady, associate professor of biology.
“They (the physician and Cady) clicked right away and wanted to collaborate. The best way for them to collaborate was through me doing research at Bradley with support from OSF HealthCare.”
Altwal enrolled and started working with Cady. His time at Bradley also led to meeting his wife, Tina Khoury ’10, a Chicago-area dentist who started her own practice in 2020. The couple met through Khoury’s younger sister, Gabrielle ’16.
His teaching interest started in his homeland and developed further at Rosalind Franklin. There, in addition to teaching university and medical school students, Altwal participated in a multiyear program geared toward high schoolers in underserved areas near the school.
“We’d bring them in their first year of high school, and they’d keep coming back every summer,” he said. “We’d teach how to do research, how to think about research independently and how to analyze and present their findings. Mentoring these students was extremely rewarding for me.”
STEM backgrounds give the couple common ground. “It’s easier to relate to each other’s careers, we enjoy discussing them,” Khoury said. Sometimes, we even discuss how our fields overlap and find ways to collaborate.”
Her husband agreed. “We always plan to do some fun collaborative projects, like studying and extracting stem cells from baby teeth or using stem cells to treat dental and gum diseases.”
While Khoury enjoys the chance to change her patient’s lives by giving them comfort, confidence and connecting with them on a personal level, Altwal knew his talents went in a different direction.
“I was always interested in science and I never had any interest in doing anything else,” he said. “Working directly with patients is tough. I prefer to do the work behind the scenes, like the research that contributes to patients' health and life quality.”