Coomson, who came to UD last spring to join Lachke’s team, has been working in the lab with Aryal in preparation for his departure. Using a bioinformatics tool known as iSyTE, which Lachke developed, Coomson is seeking to uncover the genetic interaction between two specific proteins and how that interaction affects lens development in the eye.
“Cataracts [in which the lens is cloudy] are the leading cause of blindness worldwide, so it is vital to understand the mechanisms by which the lens becomes transparent,” Coomson said. “It is equally crucial to identify aberrations in the expression of key lens factors in eye disease.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Ghana in her home country, Coomson said, she fell in love with her cell and molecular biology courses and was fascinated by the idea that everything a living thing does is done by the cells that make it up. She went on to earn a master’s degree in molecular medicine at the University of Essex in England and then searched for a doctoral program.
Coomson recently won first prize among graduate students in UD’s 2021 International Student Essay Contest, where she shared her perspectives and experiences of being an international student at the University.
“With a curriculum for Ph.D. concentration in molecular biology and genetics, coupled with state-of-the-art equipment for biological research, UD has the perfect Ph.D. program in Biological Sciences which suits my interest,” she said.
More about the research
Much of Lachke’s research focuses on the genetics of the eye lens, a transparent tissue that refracts light onto the retina and allows clear vision. Cataracts occur when the lens loses its transparency and impairs eyesight. Although cataracts often occur as people age, they can also occur at birth or in young children.
Researchers in Lachke’s lab use a bioinformatics-based tool he developed, Integrated Systems Tool for Eye gene discovery (iSyTE), which predicts the genes associated with eye development and defects, including cataract and microphthalmia (small eye). The interactive tool is available to all clinicians, scientists and anyone who is interested in studying eye development and disorders.
Using iSyTE and skills he learned in the use of mass spectrometry to examine lens biology, Aryal began exploring a specific gene (called Celf1) that makes a protein that is important in the cell. In looking for other proteins that might be associated with Celf1 in the lens, Aryal focused on the protein Elav11. His research later found for the first time that removing the Elav11 gene resulted in cataract and small eyes.
“By identifying the new gene Elav11 and showing that it’s linked to eye defects, Sandeep made an exceptional impact,” Lachke said of Aryal, who is from Nepal. “He is a prime example of how attracting outstanding talents from all over the world makes our campus so special.”