As time has passed Elmar Nurmemmedov, PhD, has ventured further away from his homeland of Azerbaijan, where he is literally one in a million as a member of the several minority groups in the small former Soviet Republic. Surrounded by the Caspian Sea and Caucasus Mountains, he spent his early years in the region bordering Russia, a place few Americans can find on a map. Today, Elmar finds himself in Santa Monica, California, where he is the Director of Drug Discovery and Principal Investigator at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute (PNI) and the John Wayne Cancer Institute (JWCI). Many things have changed for him on his journey, but his passionate pursuit of knowledge and love for science have only grown along the way.
His fascination with the sciences began when he was just a neighborhood kid running around with his friends trying to find ways to entertain themselves. The troubling times of the 1990s led them to find respite in the forest hunting for bugs to preserve and collect, as well as finding injured stray dogs to rescue. This unconventional childhood and intense curiosity about science motivated him to succeed in school and seek opportunities to advance his education. In high school, Elmar distinguished himself as an excellent student of biology and he took his first steps on his science journey as he competed in biological competitions nationally and regionally. As he was advancing personally, the science world was seeing breakthroughs in genetics, biotechnology and genetic engineering. This excitement impressed upon him the need to continue his path and follow it wherever that led him.
The Journey Begins
Considering the novelty of these scientific concepts and the struggle his country was facing with its infantile independence, he knew that he would have to pursue his passions elsewhere. His first stop as a science nomad was at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, where he completed his undergraduate studies in biology as an honor student. Eventually, he moved further west to access the material and human resources he needed to equip himself for the science career he had already begun building. In Sweden he earned his MSc in Environmental Science and a PhD in Molecular Biophysics at Lund University, as well as an MBA at Blekinge Institute of Technology.
While pursuing his PhD, Elmar’s interest in cancer studies took root as he concentrated his studies on structural biology and transcription factors, proteins that regulate the signaling inside a living cell, and he focused on cancer biology, pure biology and chemistry. He crossed the Atlantic in 2010 with his arrival in Boston to work as a postdoctoral research fellow in a joint program with Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute. At Harvard, Elmar found himself undergoing truly vigorous scientific study on a drug discovery project related to another transcription factor, but he was soon to learn the real turning point of his career would be in California.
Wnt Pathway and the Aha Moment
At the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, Elmar saw all of his knowledge and professional experience come together as he began working with the Wnt signaling pathway, an important pathway in cancerous stem cell and drug resistance research in chemotherapy. Elmar reached out to Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, who was working in San Diego at the time, and the two of them began collaborating on his work with the Wnt pathway. Dr. Kesari brought his labs and expertise to the table, allowing Elmar’s vision for his work to go to the next level and things quickly progressed. In October 2015, they decided to take their work on the Wnt pathway to JWCI, where Elmar became a Principal Investigator and Dr. Kesari the Chair and Professor in its Department of Translational Neurosciences and Neurotherapeutics.
Since joining PNI in 2017 as the Director of Drug Discovery, where Dr. Kesari serves as Director of Neuro-Oncology program and Director of the Pacific Neuroscience Research Center, Elmar has been working on transferring his work with the Wnt signaling pathway into a drug invention and seeking clinical application. Wnt signaling in chemotherapy has the potential to make a considerable impact on patients undergoing treatment but who have begun to become resistant to their chemotherapy. Unfortunately, some patients who respond well to chemotherapy at the start of their treatment can sometimes begin to develop a resistance to it as their treatment continues, but a mechanism that can curb resistance is the Wnt pathway. Elmar is working to find ways to manipulate the Wnt pathway to make patients more sensitive to chemotherapy, which would allow them to respond better to treatment and ultimately extend their lives.
Elmar has called a few countries home along the way, but the science nomad plans to remain in California with JWCI and PNI. His current role allows him to, for the first time in his career, truly be an independent scientist through the design and execution of his own investigations into scientific discovery. He sees the future of drug targets in transcription factors and his goal is to create a pipeline to target those transcription factors to influence the signaling inside the cell. Ultimately, he hopes to build a research center with JWCI and PNI, where research and drug discovery can be done in unison to continue his work on transcription factors.
While this is an exciting step for him in his career, it is also an extremely challenging one, because his vision will be tested by the scientific community and must be accepted. Taking on the role of a visionary is no easy feat, but his life experience has taught him many things, foremost being that sacrifice is essential to success. Elmar’s progressive values define him now and he feels he must continue sacrificing certain comforts in life in order to add as much value to the science world as he has received on his journey as a science nomad.
For more information, contact the Pacific Neuroscience Research Center at 310-829-8265.
Nicolette Mena is the PNI Foundation Program Coordinator and is involved with all administrative and operational aspects of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute Foundation. She focuses on raising awareness of PNI, through composition of blog posts, video appeals, newsletters, and materials for the bi-annual magazine. Fundraising is Nikki’s priority, with her efforts geared toward grant writing and coordination of outreach events. She works closely with medical experts, Saint John’s Health Center Foundation’s development team and PNI Foundation’s Directors to expand PNI’s brand both domestically and internationally.