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28 October 2014

Biochemist Mohamed F. Ramadan wins Atta-ur-Rahman Prize

Egyptian researcher discovers novel substances in rare seeds and fruits that may contribute to healthier foods and new medicines

Egyptian biochemist Mohamed Fawzy Ramadan Hassanien is the 2014 winner of the Atta-ur-Rahman Prize in chemistry for discovering new chemical compounds that may find useful application in developing more nutritious and healthy foods.

The Prize is awarded annually by TWAS – The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries – to an under-40 chemist living and working in a developing country.

The Atta-ur-Rahman Prize winner was announced today (26 October) during the opening ceremony of TWAS’s 25th General Meeting, an international scientific event that is taking place in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, from 26 to 29 October. This year’s event, which runs from 26 to 29 October, is hosted by the Sultanate of Oman, with support from the Omani Ministry of Higher Education, The Research Council of Oman, and Sultan Qaboos University.

TWAS President Bai Chunli, Omani Minister of Higher Education Rawiya Al Busaidi, and ministers and dignitaries from throughout the developing world were in the audience, along with more than 300 scientists from 56 countries. Early this afternoon, Hassanien will present his work during a lecture entitled “Health-promoting and bioactive lipids from non traditional sources”.

Hassanien is a professor of biochemistry at Zagazig University (Egypt), where he carries out research on bioactive molecules and on functionality and properties of food components. He is particularly interested in bioactive lipids because “their contribution to our health and well-being is widely recognized,” he explained. Non-conventional oilseeds, in fact, have unique bioactive and functional properties and may augment the supply of novel foods and also pharmaceuticals.

Hassanien earned his PhD in food chemistry from Berlin University of Technology (TUB), Germany (2004). Soon afterwards, he built his scientific career working as a post-doctoral fellow in ranked universities: Helsinki (Finland), Max-Rubner Institute and BUT (Germany), Maryland (USA). In 2010 he was invited as a visiting professor at King Saud University (Saudi Arabia) and in 2012 at the School of Biomedicine, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russian Federation.

His deep commitment to chemistry is witnessed by more than 120 papers and reviews published by international peer-reviewed journals. But it’s also a family legacy.

“My father, who is a professor of food science at Zagazig University, had a great impact on my scientific achievements,” he said. “In my library, I could find food science textbooks, both in English and German. But I must acknowledge also the important role of academic staff at Biochemistry Department (Faculty of Agriculture, Zagazig University) and of my German supervisor, Dr. Jӧrg Thomas Mӧrsel, who have shaped my scientific career.”

With a group of about ten people, today Hassanien is focusing on non-traditional seeds, fruits and spices of Egyptian, Indian and Arabic origins. “I search the markets for underutilized and non-conventional seeds and fruits that are rarely studied in the scientific literature. And I select the most valuable ones, by anticipating their potential commercial usefulness,” the scientist explained.

In order to come up with potentially interesting chemicals, Hassanien first applies basic analytical chemistry, which allows for precise identification of interesting compounds. Then, more sophisticated analysis follow that lead to applications of his findings. Black cumin seed oil, for example, is rich with precious antioxidant components and other chemicals with antiviral properties. “We have used these substances to make fortified white cheese,” he adds. Patents for these compounds are already under filing.

In addition, some Egyptian companies have expressed their interest in the commercial exploitation of Hassanien’s findings, to produce fortified foods and dairy products. And the government itself has declared its interest: Egypt, which is 92% a desert, could increase its production of cactus pear and goldenberry, and produce different foods for the international market.   

Hassanien’s work is not restricted to chemistry and lab work – he also in interested in environmental issues. Potatoes are one of the most important staple crops grown worldwide, with annual production approaching 300 million tons. Processed potatoes leave behind 10-25% in weight of the raw product, and the peel is discharged as by-products. Hassanien realized how valuable such leftovers could be, in terms of the extraction of antioxidants from the discharged materials.

“We have characterized the phenolic compounds in different potato peel extracts and applied the best extracts in vegetable oils protection (sunflower oil and soybean oil). We have obtained very good level of protection during storage of vegetable oil. Now we are thinking of scaling up the process.”

In addition to lab work, Hassanien serves in the editorial boards of a number international as well as national journals, including the International Journal of Agronomy, the Journal of Medicinal Food, the International Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, and the Indian Chemistry and Natural Products. He has been awarded numerous prizes, including the African Union-TWAS Young Scientist National Awards (Egypt) in Basic Sciences, Technology and Innovation (2013), the European Young Lipid Scientist Award (2009) and the Egyptian State Prize for Encouragement in Agricultural Sciences (2009).

The Atta-ur-Rahman Prize comes, for Hassanien, in times of intense professional ardor. “I’m committed to study composition, structure, functionality and health-promoting properties of many bioactive phytochemicals, in order to formulate novel compounds with better properties,” he explained.

“It was a great pleasure when they informed me about this nomination. Not only it is a prestigious prize for me, but also one of the greatest prizes in the field of chemistry worldwide. I know that the competition was high. This makes it even more important to me.”

Cristina Serra

About Atta-ur-Rahman Prize

The Atta-ur-Rahman Prize was established in 2012 by Pakistani TWAS Fellow Atta-ur-Rahman, a leading scientist and scholar in the field of organic chemistry, renowned for his research in areas related to natural product chemistry.

The award brings a prize of USD5,000, and is annually given to a talented chemist who lives and works in any of the 81 scientifically lagging countries and who is under the age of 40.

Winners are invited to attend the TWAS General Meeting and give a public lecture on their work. Each TWAS Regional Office is asked to present one candidate from their region, and the final selection is made by professor Atta-urn-Raman himself. Previous winners are: Mohammad Abdul Hasnat, Bangladesh (2013); and Shamsun Nahar Khan, Bangladesh (2012).

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