Nuruddin Unchwaniwala Nuruddin Unchwaniwala

Postdoc alum joins the fight against Hepatitis B infection

If you’re in the Bay Area and need a little pick-me-up, you’ll want to sit down and chat with Nuruddin Unchwaniwala — and you don’t even need coffee for the boost of energy. Unchwaniwala brings a refreshing and energizing smile, and a candor that makes science fun, engaging, and sometimes a little scary, but always hopeful.

An alumnus of UW–Madison, in 2021 Unchwaniwala completed his postdoctoral fellowship in the Paul Ahlquist Lab at the Rowe Center, where he contributed to a watershed collaboration that illuminated the nodavirus viral replication complexes. These stunningly detailed images showed, for the first time, the intricacy of the machines that viruses build to replicate and spread. 

“I wanted to be in a lab where I could look at the bigger picture and do big science. Paul was the perfect choice for it,” Unchwaniwala says. “He had a belief in me that I would do something with the resources he can provide.”

For two years, Unchwaniwala worked to purify the viral replication machinery and admittedly, those two years were not easy.

“It was just failure after failure after failure,” he laughs. “I would go back home late in the evening on so many days, just thinking, ‘This is it! This is the end of it. Nothing is working.’”

Ultimately, the collaboration did work. Their findings culminated in a groundbreaking 2023 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)

Unchwaniwala is quick to point out that Paul, and the Morgridge Institute, were pivotal to the team’s drive to keep going, the integrity to do the best science, and the camaraderie that united them.

“Paul supported everybody. He was always trying to make sure everybody was coming up together in the department, all the other professors, all the other scientists, everybody,” Unchwaniwala says.

“That’s where the experience at Morgridge was so critical. I learned at Morgridge how to speak about your science to very different kinds of people.”

Nuruddin Unchwaniwala

Now Unchwaniwala has taken that experience to his role as a Senior Scientist at Assembly Biosciences in South San Francisco. There, he is working to develop a cure for chronic Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) and Hepatitis D Virus (HDV) infections. These viruses infect the liver, leading to a chronic infection that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer.

People living with chronic HBV are 100 times more likely to develop liver cancer. And one out of every three deaths from liver cancer worldwide is caused by HBV.

HBV/HDV are largely silent viruses that go undetected until it’s too late. The virus slowly replicates and damages your liver over time. Only when cirrhosis has significantly deteriorated liver function do patients learn about their infection. For many, liver cancer is inevitable, with only limited options for treatment and care.

The team at Assembly Bio is developing small-molecule drugs that can target these viral infections — and stop them. Assembly Bio currently has a highly potent drug in Phase I clinical trials that may — over the next five to six years — lead to a treatment regimen for chronically infected HBV patients.

“It’s an extremely challenging long, long road,” Unchwaniwala says of the clinical trial. “But that’s the dream for me as a scientist — to work on a drug that eventually cures patients.”

Unchwaniwala commitment to inspire others, and to make science accessible, was a core part of his postdoc training at Morgridge. He participated in many outreach events with children, families, and adults. That prepared him to work with many different industry specialties — toxicology, clinical trial management, clinical development, drug metabolism, pharmacokinetics, and investors.

Nuruddin, a postdoc alumnus of the Ahlquist Lab, with his wife Batul and their daughter Maria enjoyed a wildlife boat tour near Monterey Bay where they saw cormorants, otters, and sea lions.

“Every time you talk to any of these people you have to speak very differently,” he says. “That’s where the experience at Morgridge was so critical. I learned at Morgridge how to speak about your science to very different kinds of people.”

Talking about science is clearly part of his life’s work, and he is quick to advise future scientists.

“You have to learn how to do good science. It doesn’t matter what project you’re working on, so don’t get too hung up on, ‘HIV is very popular — I’ll work on that,’” Unchwaniwala says. “The larger goal should be to do good science, regardless of the area of work.”

Science has taken him across the world from Mumbai to New Orleans, to Madison, to the Bay Area. But he hasn’t done it alone. His wife Batul received her Master’s in Biological Systems Engineering at UW–Madison, and just as the family was preparing for a cross-country move, they welcomed their daughter Maria into the world.