As a teenager, Sahiba Ahmed sold bagels to raise money to fight cystic fibrosis (CF), a progressive disease that causes persistent lung infections, limits breathing — and also afflicts her cousin. Today, as a sophomore at the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, the young scientist is spearheading her own research to help to find better treatments — and recently earned support from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for her studies on identifying and “turning off” genes to provide better targets for drug therapies for the disease.
“I’m interested in this research because this is personal,” she says. “I want to do something that will benefit the cystic fibrosis community.”
Cystic fibrosis is caused by a change, or mutation, in a gene called CFTR (cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator). This gene controls the flow of salt and fluids in and out of your cells. If the CFTR gene is defective, a sticky mucus builds up in the lungs, causing CF. More than 70,000 people have the disease worldwide and the life expectancy of patients is only 44 years.
Because CF compromises immune defenses in the lung, CF patients are susceptible to many opportunistic pathogens that do not pose a threat for healthy individuals. Mycobacterium abscessus (MAB), a close relative of the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, is one of those pathogens of concern.
Ahmed’s goal is to use the CRISPRi gene silencing system to identify genes critical for infection which could be good targets for new antibiotics. Using engineered strains of MAB, the CRISPRi system can target specific genes, to silence or turn them off. If the bacteria die, that may indicate a good drug target. Amhed will try to silence different combinations of genes as a way to identify optimal drug combinations which ultimately will be tested in mouse models.
Kyle Rohde, a College of Medicine infectious disease expert and researcher in tuberculosis and other lung bacteria, is Ahmed’s mentor.
“Seeing my students recognized for their work is very rewarding,” he says. “It gives Sahiba a great experience for learning, to formulate ideas and write proposals, and she will be applying scientific study and new technology to an important medical problem that is hard to treat.”
This is the sixth grant his lab has received from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
As part of the $4,000 grant, Ahmed will attend a mycobacteria conference at Colorado State University in Fort Collins this spring and present a poster on her CF research. After earning her undergraduate degree, she hopes to attend medical school and become a pulmonologist to help patients with CF.
“I’m extremely happy about getting the grant, and I’m one step closer to my goal of increasing the wellbeing and quality of life for cystic fibrosis patients,” she says.