Dr. Sima Tokajian’s Pathogenomics Lab: a one-of-a-kind attempt to improve human health

“Since joining LAU in October 2005, I have developed a strong record in research, and built from scratch the state of the art lab that uses genomics to understand how pathogenic bacteria cause diseases in humans, and translate that knowledge to improve human health,” says Dr. Sima Tokajian, full-time associate professor of molecular microbiology at the Department of Natural Sciences at LAU Byblos campus.

The Pathogenomics lab seeks to achieve a sequence-based typing of Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that can cause multiple diseases including: skin infections, pneumonia, meningitis and toxic shock syndrome.

Infections with S aureus have been on the rise for the past 20 years; so the sequence-based typing is essential in trying to counter the pathogen through identifying the best course of action; hence minimizing the use of antibiotics and consequently antibiotic resistance.

One of the lab’s most promising and significant achievements is the sequence of more than 100 organisms using genomic technologies. These technologies form a discipline that aims to sequence, gather and interpret the full set of the DNA within a cell - known as the genome.

Furthermore, the Lab aims at enhancing the recognition of the vast range of microbial capacities through the understanding of “mechanisms of microbial pathogenesis, multidrug resistance and evolution, and virulence determinants,” states Tokajian. After all, the lab is a ‘humanitarian’ research center which aims at improving the human health and the quality of life; thus “paving the way towards personalized and public healthcare,” she continues.

Tokajian’s Pathogenomics Lab at LAU is the only one outside the EU that is part of the, the European network for laboratories for sequence-based typing of microbial pathogens; it comprises 50 laboratories from 27 European countries and aims to establish clear and easily comparable typing data for surveillance of microorganisms, based on their official website.

Tokajian, who has been “the only scientist in the region doing high throughout sequencing to study bacterial genomics,” has been keeping up with the progress in the field through joining one of the most prominent researchers, Prof. Jonathan Eisen’s lab at the University of California-Davis in 2013 and publishing- in collaboration with her colleagues- five Genome Announcements. According to her, this experience boosted her lab’s exposure and was successful in gaining the media’s attention with the coverage of the first Genome Announcement by the Daily Star and Nature Arabia.

Several LAU students have had the privilege of being part of this valuable and once-in-a-life-time experience. Fortunately, the Lab’s students have had their impressive marks on the field with their numerous publications and high academic achievements. Of these are: Dr. Dina Jabbour - PhD in Technical Microbiology at the Hamburg University of Technology , Germany - Dr. Nahla Issa - PhD in Molecular Medicine, Laval University, Canada - Dr. Mazen Rizk - PhD in Institute of Technical Microbiology Hamburg University - Dr. Dominik Haddad - PhD in Neuroscience, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

 “Students that joined my lab were trained to become independent scientists through: reading scientific literature, discussing ideas with others, and designing experiments, developed in depth research experience, authored and/or co-authored publications in high impact factor journals, and pursued in a science-based career or joined a reputable grad school,” asserts Tokajian.