Addressing the industrialized world's most costly non-deadly medical condition

Alikhan Fidai, Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering

The most expensive non-lethal medical condition people experience in the industrialized world is lower back pain. Often this pain is caused by intervertebral discs that have degenerated, slipped, bulged, or herniated. In many cases the pain caused by these conditions is intense and debilitating.

Alikhan Fidai wants to do something about this. Fidai, who is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Nancy E. and Peter C. Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering at Cornell, is working to better understand exactly how cellular therapies for disc degeneration provide relief and how to make these treatments even more effective.

Fidai’s advisor, Professor Larry Bonassar, has been at Cornell since 2003 and is a leading researcher in the regeneration and analysis of musculoskeletal tissues. Fidai, who is a Deans Excellence Fellow, says he was “laser focused” on getting into Cornell for his doctoral studies. “It was not a hard decision for me,” Fidai said. “The research at Cornell BME is groundbreaking, and the school made it clear that they value me. They gave me resources and made me feel like a part of the community before I even got to campus.”

Fidai’s path to pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering was non-traditional. After struggling in the chemical engineering curriculum at his first undergraduate institution, Fidai enrolled in classes at Tarrant County College Northwest where he discovered a love for biomedical engineering. In his second year at TCC he applied to the National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) research academy and was awarded a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) that he chose to take at The University of Texas at Dallas.

The timing was perfect, as Fidai was already in the process of transferring to UT Dallas. He was matched with Dr. Danieli Rodrigues for his REU and started to learn many of the lab techniques and processes that would become the basis for his future work at Cornell. The time in Rodrigues’s lab gave Fidai valuable technical experiences, and also something less quantifiable but just as valuable. “I was able to identify mentors from a diverse set of backgrounds who aren’t afraid to bring their intersectional identities to the workplace,” Fidai said. “That really motivated me, and made me feel like I belong in research, too.”

While earning his B.S. in Bioengineering at UT Dallas, Fidai participated in a second LSAMP-sponsored REU at Imperial College London, where he worked with Dr. Rylie Green. His time in London confirmed for Fidai that he really could have a future as a researcher. The Director of the LSAMP program at UT Dallas, Dr. Juan González, agreed and encouraged Fidai to apply to Ph.D. programs.

As noted earlier, Fidai was very interested in Cornell BME, and now that he is here, he has not been disappointed. He praises the atmosphere in Dr. Bonassar’s lab group as welcoming, supportive, and collaborative. “The people I get to work with are the best part about my work. Whether I am troubleshooting a new protocol or in need of a coffee run, my lab mates are always there to help.” 

Fidai’s work focuses on a current treatment for damaged intervertebral discs, which involves extracting bone marrow from a patient’s hip, spinning down the marrow to enrich the stem cell population, and then injecting bone marrow concentrate into that same patient’s affected disc. The procedure shows promise, with a significant number of patients reporting decreased pain and improved function.

The thing is, nobody knows exactly why this procedure is effective.

Fidai is working on a protocol for consistently evaluating the cellular composition of patient bone marrow samples. “We believe that bone marrow derived mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are truly directing disc repair and regeneration. These cells can employ a number of strategies to rescue damaged cells and tissue.”

“We know that this treatment is working,” Fidai said. “Discs are regenerating. But how is it working? Why is it working? If we can uncover what role MSCs play in regeneration, then maybe we can engineer ways to enhance disc regeneration.” Even though he himself does not suffer from lower back pain, Fidai’s excitement about his work is clear as he imagines a day not too far into the future when doctors and engineers working together can reduce or eliminate lower back pain.

In addition to his work on disc regeneration, Fidai is a Graduate Resident Fellow on West Campus, where he has opportunities to help undergraduates who may be struggling like he was in his first undergraduate college. He also enjoys spending time outdoors, camping, and visiting local wineries, cideries, and breweries.

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