Hafna Ahmed


Research School of Chemistry
Australian National University

Hafna Ahmed completed a Bachelor of Medical Science (Honours) at the Australian National University (ANU) with First Class Honours in 2011. During her Honours year at Associate Professor Kevin Saliba’s laboratory at the Research School of Biology, she studied pantothenate kinase in the malaria parasite as a potential drug target, fostering her interest in understanding protein structure and function, particularly in relation to pathogenesis and drug design. In 2012, Hafna received the ANU PhD Scholarship as an international student to commence her PhD at Associate Professor Colin Jackson’s laboratory at the Research School of Chemistry at ANU. She studied the structure, function and evolution of the flavin/deazaflavin dependent oxidoreductase protein superfamily present in mycobacterial pathogens, which includes the deazaflavin dependent nitroimidazole reductase that activates pro-drugs against Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Her work identified novel functions by these proteins that are implicated in mycobacterial pathogenesis, classified structure–function relationships in this superfamily and enhanced the understanding of the role of the rare cofactor F420 in the bacterial community, leading to six publications. Her contribution to this field was recognised at the 19th International Symposium on Flavins and Flavoproteins held in the Netherlands in 2017, where she was awarded the Vince Massey Award for outstanding contribution by a young investigator. She also received a poster prize at the Lorne Conference on Protein Structure and Function in 2015 for presenting this project.
After graduating with her PhD in 2016, and taking some time off to look after her newborn baby, Hafna has continued to work at the Jackson laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow since 2017. She currently works on a joint project with industry partner Beta Therapeutics to study the structure, function and inhibition mechanisms of human heparanase, which is an enzyme essential for tumour metastasis and in the development of type 1 diabetes. Heparanase is a promising drug target and Hafna investigates the mechanism of action of novel inhibitory compounds to propose improvements for increased efficacy. In 2018, Hafna has been awarded the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Postdoctoral Fellowship to commence work on studying the molecular basis of ligand selectivity and specificity in riboswitches. This project expands her interests in studying the fundamental structure–function relationships in biomolecules that is essential for further work in avenues such as drug development and engineering.
The ASBMB Award will allow Hafna to attend the EMBO Workshop on Chemical Biology 2018 held in Heidelberg, Germany.