CFF Awards Research Grant to College Sophomore

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by Mary Chapman |

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Inspired by a cousin who lives with cystic fibrosis (CF), a University of Central Florida (UCF) undergraduate student will use a $4,000 Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF) grant to seek better treatments for the genetic disease that affects the lungs and other organs.

The young researcher, Sahiba Ahmed, is a sophomore at UCF’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences. She was awarded the grant for her research that focuses on identifying and “turning off” genes to provide better targets for CF treatment candidates.

Ahmed is motivated to do all she can. As a teen, she sold bagels to raise funds to fight CF on behalf of her loved one.

“I’m interested in this research because this is personal,” Ahmed said in a UCF press release. “I want to do something to help the cystic fibrosis community.”

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Cystic fibrosis, which is thought to affect more than 70,000 people globally, is characterized by the damage-causing accumulation of abnormally thick and sticky mucus in various organs, including the lungs, pancreas, liver, and intestines.

The disorder is caused by mutations in a gene called cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR). The gene instructs cells on how to produce a protein, also called CFTR, that regulates the flow of water and salts in and out of cells.

CF patients are susceptible to pathogens such as mycobacterium abscessus (MAB), which is related to the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, that don’t pose a problem in healthy individuals. In people with CF, however, bacteria such as MAB may cause serious and recurrent lung infections.

Ahmed aims to use what is known as the CRISPR interference (CRISPRi) gene-silencing system to identify genes that are important to bacterial infections that may be suitable targets for new antibiotics. CF patients rely on antibiotics to combat bacterial infections. However, a problem has been that bacterial species can quickly become antibiotic resistant, rendering a particular class of antibiotics ineffective.

In Ahmed’s research, CRISPRi will use engineered MAB strains to target certain genes with the aim of silencing them or turning them “off.” To identify optimal possible therapeutic combinations, which will be assessed at length in mouse models, Ahmed will attempt to silence multiple gene combinations.

“Seeing my students recognized for their work is very rewarding,” said Kyle Rohde, PhD, Ahmed’s mentor and infectious disease expert who studies lung bacteria. “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.”

Ahmed, who hopes to attend medical school and become a pulmonologist to help CF patients, will use part of the CFF grant to attend a mycobacteria conference at Colorado State University this spring.

“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 said.

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