Hutch News Stories

Liver cancer researcher Dr. Abir Arfaoui named latest Brave Fellow

Running community honors late athlete Gabe Grunewald by funding rare cancer research at Fred Hutch

Dr. Abir Arfaoui of Fred Hutch, who is the 2021 Brave Fellow, explains her research on fibrolamellar carcinoma.

Video by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Half a world apart from each other, two young women chased their dreams: Abir Arfaoui, in Tunisia, was studying biology, determined to pursue a career in science despite her family’s limited financial means. Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald, in the U.S., was running professionally while undergoing cycles of treatment for an aggressive, rare cancer. 

Their paths crossed this month, two years after Grunewald’s death from her adenoid cystic carcinoma. 

Arfaoui, now a postdoctoral researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, was announced today as the second recipient of the Brave Fellowship at Fred Hutch, funded by the Brave Like Gabe Foundation, and a donation from Brooks Running on behalf of the foundation. Brooks, a Seattle-based running company, honors Grunewald, a Brooks athlete, with its Brave Like Gabe collection.

The new fellowship will fund Arfaoui’s research in the lab of Dr. Taran Gujral on a rare liver cancer called fibrolamellar carcinoma, or FLC. FLC is resistant to most chemotherapies, even drugs that target other forms of liver cancer. It kills nearly one out of three of the young people it typically strikes within five years after diagnosis. 

Arfaoui aims to change that. 

We talked with her about her research, her path into science and what it means to her to be the latest Brave Fellow. We’ve edited this transcript lightly for clarity. 

Tell us about your research project. 

Fibrolamellar carcinoma is characterized by a chimeric protein called DNAJ-PKA that exists on all the cancer cells. A chimeric protein is a fusion between two proteins on chromosome 19. This chimeric protein has been found to be the main driver of FLC. However, the mechanism by which the FLC chimeric protein drives tumor growth remains unknown. So the goal of my research is to determine the signaling pathways that drive tumor growth and proliferation in FLC, and to develop an effective treatment. 

What makes me excited about this project is the possibility to transform a chemo-resistant disease into one that has multiple treatment options, thus bringing the hope of a cure to people who suffer from this disease. 

What challenges did you overcome to pursue a career in science? 

I have been passionate about science since I was young, and I knew exactly that I wanted to be a scientific researcher. So after I finished my master’s degree in Tunisia, my dream then was to travel abroad, to learn new skills and to work in a well-known laboratory. But the first obstacle was to find the perfect lab and a scholarship, because my family didn’t have the money to offer me the study and travel expenses. 

I spent a whole year just looking for labs, sending my application and looking for a scholarship. And unfortunately my initial attempts weren’t successful. So, I kept looking until I found a Ph.D. program, a collaborative project between Tunisia and France. I traveled to France with a scholarship offered by the Tunisian state. However, this scholarship is offered only for six months out of an academic year. So I had a limited amount of time to do this work. When I arrived in France I made a very detailed plan for six months, and I worked very hard to finish what I planned to do. And after the six months, I delivered several results that other students might deliver in a year or even a year and a half. So my French mentor was very pleased and offered me a scholarship for the next year. 

My dream was to be part of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. So I applied for a postdoctoral position here and I’m so happy that it worked out. Everything is possible because when you really believe in yourself and work on that, there are no limits. You will achieve what you’ve dreamed for. 

What next steps in your science does your new Brave Fellowship make possible? 

In our preliminary study, we've identified a promising drug treatment that decreases fibrolamellar carcinoma cells growing in lab dishes. For the next step, we will test the effect of this drug on human samples, to evaluate its efficacy on reducing cell growth and proliferation of FLC in a more complex living system. 

I am so excited and thankful for this opportunity, and it’s an honor for me to represent the Brave Like Gabe Foundation. 

Robert Hood is the senior multimedia producer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He worked on the award-winning multimedia team at MSNBC.com and NBCNews.com for almost two decades, covering national and international news and coordinating special projects. Before that he taught photojournalism at the University of Missouri, worked as a newspaper page designer in Missouri, and worked as a newspaper photojournalist in Missouri, Wyoming and Utah. Reach him at rbhood@fredhutch.org.

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Last Modified, October 06, 2021