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UD doctoral student Salma Al Saai conducts genetic research on the cause of congenital cataracts.

Fight for sight

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson

Research organization supports student’s cataract studies

A baby who is born with cataracts or develops them in the first year of life faces an array of challenges that don’t confront an adult with the condition, in which the lens of the eye becomes cloudy and obscures vision.

Older cataract patients, especially in developed countries, generally undergo a relatively routine outpatient surgery in which the clouded lens is removed and replaced with a clear artificial lens, restoring their vision. But for babies, whose eyes and brains are still developing, cataract surgery is a more complicated process.

“There are a lot of things to consider: What is the best age to do surgery? What is the best lens to use? And then, for children in poor areas, that’s another level of challenge,” said Salma Al Saai, a doctoral student at the University of Delaware. “So, it’s really critical to find a way to prevent congenital cataracts in the first place.”

Al Saai is conducting genetic research with the hope that such preventive measures might be possible in the future. Her work got a boost recently with the award of a highly competitive summer scholarship from the Fight for Sight organization, which is supporting one aspect of the project.

Her research is focused on a specific genetic mutation that causes congenital cataracts — defined as those that occur at birth or before a baby’s first birthday.

A mutation in the gene she is studying has been known for some time to cause infertility in male mice. In 2011, Salil Lachke, associate professor of biological sciences at UD, published a paper connecting the same gene to congenital cataracts. Other researchers have since also identified the gene’s connection to cataracts.

Salma Al Saai works in biologist Salil Lachke’s lab at UD, isolating DNA to conduct experiments on a gene mutation linked to the formation of cataracts.

Al Saai works in Lachke’s lab, studying the way cataracts develop in the lens when the mutated gene is present. Her summer project supported by Fight for Sight examines a particular protein to determine what changes in that protein cause the genetic mutation.

“I’m trying to understand the function of that gene,” she said. “This is basic science, learning more about the lens and how it changes from clear to cloudy.”

Any intervention to prevent cataracts is probably some distance in the future, she said, “but you never know where basic science will lead.”

For Al Saai, her passion for scientific research is grounded in the desire to help improve human health. A native of Yemen, she grew up in the United Arab Emirates and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees there and in Oman, conducting research on malaria.

That work then brought her to the United States, where she continued studying the disease at a research institute in Texas. Malaria, which killed more than 400,000 people, most of them children in Africa, in 2017, is increasingly developing resistance to drug treatments.

“What I’m looking for is the chance to do good research that can contribute to human health,” Al Saai said. “The idea that you can change somebody’s life — moving them from pain to healing—that’s my motivation. It inspires me.” 

Now in her fifth year at UD, she expects to complete her doctoral work in the 2019-20 academic year and is also pursuing a graduate certificate in bioinformatics. After that, she plans to continue conducting research, either in academia or another setting.

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