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Omaha Magazine

Eye-Opening Research: Curiosity Drives Omaha Scientist

Dec 28, 2020 09:23AM ● By Susan Meyers
scientist Iqbal Ahmad, Ph.D. in office

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The loss of vision has been said to be the most life altering of any of the senses.

University of Nebraska Medicine scientist Iqbal Ahmad, Ph.D., is hopeful his groundbreaking research may be on the cusp of uncovering innovative therapies to prevent one of the most common causes of vision loss. 

Ahmad, a professor in the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences at UNMC, has spent more than 30 years studying the inner workings of the brain and its relationship to the retina to understand what leads to blindness. 

His commitment to this research is finally paying off. He and his colleagues—researcher Pooja Teotia, Ph.D., and bioinformatics programmer Meng Niu, Ph.D.—identified one of the cells in the retina that plays an essential role in adults who develop glaucoma, one of the leading causes of irreversible blindness. This finding may lead to the ability to prevent or treat glaucoma. These cells, called the retina ganglia cells (RGCs), process visual information that enters the eye and transmits it to the brain via the optic nerve. In some adults, these cells degenerate or die as they age. Ahmad’s findings were published in the June 2020 issue of the national journal Stem Cells

“This could be life-changing for people predisposed to developing glaucoma,” he said.

Growing up in India, Ahmad was the youngest of five children. He was his father’s last hope to have a physician among his children. Ahmad’s parents were strong role models, showing him how to persevere and remain principled, which he said became critical assets in guiding him to properly and ethically execute scientific research throughout his lifetime.

Ahmad aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps as a physician, but he got sidetracked along the way and failed to qualify for medical school. Determined to make up for his teenage negligence, he attended graduate school and completed a master’s degree in zoology. He came to the United States in 1990 to pursue a doctoral degree in cell and molecular biology at Kent State University in Ohio.

Fueled by his unrelenting curiosity and always looking for unique approaches to understanding science, Ahmad said it occurred to him that “how the brain functions may lie in the mechanisms by which the brain is put together.”

That’s when Ahmad’s passion turned to the retina, which he believed could provide an integral link in answering questions about how the brain functions. “The retina is actually an extension of the brain that forms in the embryo from neuro tissue connected to the brain by the optic nerve,” Ahmad explained. “Much of what we know about the brain has come from the study of the retina and how these cells handle, process, and convey information.”

With this knowledge, Ahmad realized that study of the retina may also provide answers to the mechanisms that lead to blindness. The National Institute of Health agreed to fund his studies, which Ahmad brought with him to Omaha in 1994 when he joined the research team at UNMC. 

Using stem cell modeling, Ahmad and his colleague are testing a concept that glaucoma may be due to a developmental error in the embryonic stages that causes RGCs to be prone to degeneration later in life. 

Significant advances over the last decade in stem cell modeling has allowed doctors to study disease processes and potential therapies with replicated cells in a petri dish as opposed to using animal models. “It has revolutionized our understanding of the disease processes in the lab,” Ahmad said. 

But the process is still slow, and potential treatments are still at least two years away, he said.  

Today Ahmad models his father’s strong principles and shares his love and dedication to science by mentoring others in his personal and professional lives. As a professor who has taught neuroscience to thousands of medical students, Ahmad finds teaching rewarding.

“Throughout my academic years, I have been inspired by excellent teachers and mentors who were passionate, respectful, patient, and honest,” he said. “I try to inculcate these elements in mentoring my own students, who will be the next generation of scientists.”

“Dr. Ahmad’s qualities inspire not only scientists, but everyone in his daily life,” said one of his colleagues, Dania Emi Hamassaki, Ph.D., professor for the Department of Cell Biology and Development at the Biomedical Science Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil. “He is ethical, curious, creative, persistent, open-minded, and friendly, and always willing to open the doors of his lab to others.”

She explained how Ahmad welcomed one of her graduate students to his lab, mentoring the student through her research and again welcoming her back later for her post-doctorate research. 

Another colleague, Majlinda Lako, Ph.D., professor of stem cell sciences at the Biosciences Institute at Newcastle University, United Kingdom, said she was not surprised to hear of Ahmad’s recent accomplishments. “He has always been very dedicated to science. He is systematic, thorough, and always exploring new ideas and adventures into research.”

It has been said that curiosity is the most powerful thing one owns. Curiosity runs deep within the soul of Ahmad. He attributes his recent findings in part to his unrelenting curiosity as well as the company to which he keeps. “Curiosity is infectious,” he said. “I believe that if you surround yourself with young and curious minds, you may be able to stave off aging and stay on top of your game.” 

May Ahmad’s dedication and curiosity fuel the flame that leads to the answers people need to prevent or cure irreversible blindness. 

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This article was printed in the January/February 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.