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UH researchers discovering unique elegance of eye’s cell biology

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Stephen Greenwell
Mashal Kakakhel, now a first year medical student, was lead author for a paper shedding light on how rod and cone photoreceptors in the eye work and interact. The work was done with Dr. Muna Naash, the John S. Dunn Endowed Professor of Biomedical Engineering.
Mashal Kakakhel, now a first year medical student, was lead author for a paper shedding light on how rod and cone photoreceptors in the eye work and interact. The work was done with Dr. Muna Naash, the John S. Dunn Endowed Professor of Biomedical Engineering.

New research from the Cullen College of Engineering’s Biomedical Engineering Department is shedding light on how rod and cone photoreceptors in the eye work and interact.

The paper, “Syntaxin 3 is essential for photoreceptor outer segment protein trafficking and survival,” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) in August 2020 and has, to date, been downloaded more than 500 times. The research was done by the lab of Dr. Muna Naash, a John S. Dunn Endowed Professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department. Mashal Kakakhel, now a first year Texas medical student, and a UH graduate with Masters and Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Engineering, served as the lead author with co-authors Lars Tebbe, Mustafa S. Makia, Shannon M. Conley, David M. Sherry and Muayyad R. Al-Ubaidi.

According to the paper’s abstract and summary, the trafficking of photoreceptor membrane proteins from their site of synthesis in the inner segment to the outer segment is critical for photoreceptor function and vision. Research by the group concluded that the SNARE protein Syntaxin 3 is an essential trafficking component for both disc rim proteins and neurotransmitter release.

“Throughout my courses, problem solving taught me how to study in a way that would first solidify my knowledge foundation, then use practice problems to make it stronger,” Kakakhel said. “This became even more useful when I worked on my Masters’ thesis, where I needed to extrapolate information and apply it to my own project pushing the boundaries of our existing understanding of protein trafficking. Without research, medicine would be stagnant. Now when studying all the trafficking pathways in my medical school textbooks, I can deeply appreciate all the effort it took to get there.”

Kakakhel said she has always been interested in clinical research, since her dream growing up was to be a physician scientist.

“Growing up my father was an engineer and he inspired me to pursue an engineering degree, however, I still had a passion for science and medicine,” she said. “Biomedical engineering allowed me to do both. As an engineer the goal is to problem solve, which is the skill to recall pertinent information and apply it to various situations. This is crucial in engineering as well as medicine as it is not just about memorizing and retaining complex concepts but rather using the knowledge to understand and find a solution.”

Kakakhel said working with Naash at UH was invaluable when it came to her career goals.

“UH allowed me to learn how to perform experiments, write papers and present my work. Most importantly, it taught me how to think as an engineer and a scientist. The BME program is one of a kind because I felt so supported and motivated every step of the way, thanks to the undergraduate and graduate faculty. Building such a solid foundation where I was in a collaborative and positive environment was one of the most important aspects of my medical school application and my future career.”

Naash’s lab will continue to build upon the findings that Kakakhel presented in this paper, and will continue to publish subsequent papers on protein trafficking in the retina. These series of papers will give researchers and doctors a better understanding of the visual impairments that plague so many patients and may one day be the key to finding a cure for these individuals.

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