SAN ANTONIO (Nov. 10, 2014) — Elizabeth Levine, a student in the School of Medicine at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, is gaining valuable experience in an accomplished mentor’s lab this year as she pursues an intriguing topic: discovering the genetic determinants of house dust mite allergies. Levine’s full-time studies over 12 months in the laboratory of Sunil K. Ahuja, M.D., are made possible by a Clinical Research Mentorship Grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF).
Levine is the only student in Texas selected this year for a DDCF mentorship grant. These prestigious grants are by invitation only to DDCF Distinguished Clinical Scientists and the students they select to mentor. Dr. Ahuja, professor of medicine, biochemistry, microbiology and immunology in the School of Medicine, received a DDCF Distinguished Clinical Scientist Award in 2008. He is director of the Veterans Affairs (VA) Center for Personalized Medicine and the VA Research Center for AIDS and HIV-1 Infection, both in the South Texas Veterans Health Care System.
In a recent interview at the Ahuja lab in the VA hospital, Levine said: “When I first came into medical school, I had no idea of translational research. Then I had experiences with it and really liked it.”
Because of research opportunities funded by the DDCF, mentored students such as Levine learn to visualize research solutions for clinical problems they will encounter in their practices. This is an important facet of translational research.
Levine designed her project with help from Dr. Ahuja and two lab members, Puraskar Ingale and Ya-Guang Liu, M.D. “We are studying nasal epithelial cells obtained from 40 people who participated in a clinical research study,” Levine said. “The study was conducted in an allergen exposure chamber, which provides a controlled environment where subjects were exposed to house dust mites.”
Levine is stimulating the cells with dust mites again and uses a powerful gene-editing technology called CRISPR to remove some targets that may be involved in the allergy response. CRISPR enables Levine to simply snip DNA fragments and retest the cells for changes in the response.
Recent studies conducted by other groups suggest that the integrity of the nasal epithelial barrier is important early on in the allergy response. Levine is also studying this aspect.
Levine is doing this mentored research program between her third and fourth years of medical school. “It’s really wonderful to have support, especially from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, for translational research,” she said.
Levine said she enjoys the Ahuja laboratory because it brings together people from all levels, from high school students who come in twice a week, to college students, to people with master’s degrees, to postdoctoral fellows to medical doctors.
“Puraskar Ingale (research fellow) and Dr. Liu have helped me daily in the lab,” she said. “They’ve been extremely knowledgeable about gene editing and the procedures of the lab.”
“She is the first one of our students to do this much cell culture work. She grasped it fast,” Ingale said. “The week she started, we were already doing experiments knocking out genes from cells and showing how the CRISPR gene-editing technology would work.”
Then, of course, there is the opportunity to work with the lab’s leader, Dr. Ahuja, who is well known for his groundbreaking research in HIV/AIDS and whose lab now has moved into allergy research as well.
“Dr. Ahuja is a great mentor, very accomplished,” Levine said. “He gave me the opportunity to apply with him because he is a Doris Duke Distinguished Clinical Scientist. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”
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