When Talal El-Hefnawy, M.D., Ph.D., joined WVSOM this past summer as the school’s new assistant vice president for research and sponsored programs, he knew that research and scholarly activity has become increasingly important to the success of osteopathic medical students.
“The COMLEX became pass/fail in 2022, so today’s students are not going to be judged on the score they get on board exams. They’re going to have to take part in extracurricular activities, and research is a big part of that,” El-Hefnawy said. “Five or 10 years ago, research was not on the horizon for our accrediting organization, COCA (the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation), but now it has become a core component. Fortunately, WVSOM has been doing research all along, and we’re strong in it, but I think we have to approach research with a different view.”
El-Hefnawy has been involved with research for much of his professional life. After earning an M.D. degree from Zagazig University Medical School in Cairo, Egypt, he received clinical training in ophthalmology, surgery and OB-GYN at Turku University Hospital in Turku, Finland, and a Ph.D. degree in endocrinology from the University of Turku Medical School, studying under one of the world’s top reproductive endocrinologists. After briefly practicing ophthalmology in Finland, he entered a postdoctoral fellowship at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., helping to cement his focus on academia.
“I never returned to clinical practice,” he said. “I loved academia and research, and I’m still doing that today.”
El-Hefnawy has had faculty positions at Florida Gulf Coast University, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine. He served as director of research at the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, where he helped repurpose a 320,000-square-foot corporate office building into a state-of-the-art holistic health research facility.
That experience aligns with WVSOM’s own long-term goal of developing a research institute, he said.
“We hope to expand our research facility, and I have experience in establishing, from scratch, a major research institute,” he said. “I’ve had great conversations with the president, with the dean and with Dr. Ed Bridges [WVSOM’s vice president for administration and external relations] about the potential of collaborating with other institutes, including international opportunities, to give our students more chances to participate in research, whether on site or remotely. We have to think outside the box and look at all the possibilities, from community-based medicine to clinical medicine to translational medicine. We have to expand in order to help students.”
Early steps in expanding WVSOM’s research effort could include establishing a regional or national research conference, likely focused on disease prevention, then utilizing the conference as a platform to launch a medical journal.
“Our students sometimes struggle with publishing their work. What if we had a journal and we had contributors to it from our conference? That’s my hope,” he said.
El-Hefnawy’s own research combines two fields of study, bridging endocrinology and cancer research by examining the mechanism through which endocrine-disrupting chemicals act within the body to increase the risk of disease. The currently accepted theory is that the chemicals bind to a receptor that serves as a receiver for the hormone. El-Hefnawy’s research seeks to challenge that idea.
“We are trying to develop new theories for how these chemicals impact our lives,” he said. “Do they play on your body’s ability to fix itself or rid itself of unwanted substances? We are also investigating whether environmental chemicals can direct the liver to generate harmful byproducts during the process of ridding the body of the unwanted chemicals, and whether those intermediate byproducts — not the original environmental chemicals — could create a bigger health problem.”
He believes it’s important to engage students in the same sort of critical thinking his research requires — particularly at an osteopathic medical school, where aspiring physicians are taught to step back and examine the whole person, not just the symptoms.
“I tell students who join me in the lab, ‘Do the experiment knowing that I might be wrong. Do it the way you want, analyze the data the way you want, and challenge my hypothesis.’ In the future, when they see a patient who has been treated conventionally for 10 or 15 years and it’s not working, I want them to be able to challenge the standard of care and say, ‘What am I missing?’”
In addition to continuing his own research while at WVSOM, El-Hefnawy will lecture on the physiology of the heart. Still, he said, most of his attention will go to his role leading the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs through what he hopes will be a critical period of expansion.
“I was hired to support the research initiative, and that’s what I plan to do,” he said. “My research is important to me, but my priority is the institutional work of helping others, of building the research office to be a good resource for faculty and students.”