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Under the Microscope

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Unraveling the Working Secrets of Living Cells

Professor Heikal and students
Ahmed Heikal (center) with students who work in his lab

When you enter one of Ahmed Heikal’s labs, be prepared to see what you’ve never seen before. His laser microscope, with shared space for computers and electronics, takes up an entire room. All are stationed on two large optical tables, each weighing over a ton, to suppress vibrations in the building. This piece of instrumentation, one of only a few in the world, has the capability to reveal ground-breaking discoveries. A laser beam, which increases clarity and sharpness, is used to illuminate the workings of miniscule cells, and the magnification is far beyond what the human eye can see.

Heikal, associate professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, has a second microscope in which a type of sophisticated strobe light can be activated, allowing a series of images to be taken. These pictures reveal what very few have ever seen before: how cells respond to drugs, toxins, and environmental stimuli. Heikal explains it this way, “We combine ultrashort laser pulses with our microscopes to view magnified human cells or tissues as well as the molecular machines responsible for the survival and function of these tiny cells.”

Jillian Bartusek, a senior majoring in biochemistry, has had the opportunity to work with Heikal during the past two years as an undergraduate research assistant. Together Heikal and Bartusek are working on understanding how certain drugs work at the single cell level.

“Because of her enthusiasm, self-motivation, and dedication to research, Jillian has been working on two separate projects,” Heikal said. “Her first project focused on a newly approved drug for multiple sclerosis.” Dr. Robert Bittman (Queens College, CUNY, NY), a collaborator with Heikal, synthesized this drug with a fluorescent tag allowing Heikal and Bartusek to follow the drug actions in living cells under the microscope.

“My two years in lab with Heikal have been a great experience,” Bartusek said. “With the UROP program, students are able to find out what it’s like to design and carry out their own experiment. It involves a lot of freedom and the help needed to succeed. I have thoroughly enjoyed my lab research, and I am excited that these small experiments can be applied to a big picture that may affect someone’s life. It really is an amazing concept,” said Bartusek.

Under Heikal’s guidance, Bartusek has made her own discoveries. She recently received an award at the 2011 Winchell Undergraduate Research Symposium for her second UROP project, “Partitioning, Stoichiometry, and Diffusion Dynamics of FTY720 (An Immune Modulator) In Triton X-100 Micelles.” “One of my colleagues wrote to inform me how impressed he was by Jillian’s poster presentation. I am very proud of her,” Heikal said.

Heikal continued, “Jillian is also working to understand how can we diagnose the effects of oxidative stress and free radicals on live cells, which are prevalent with aging, using natural biomolecular markers.” In this project, Bartusek is examining the relationship between oxidative stress and energy production needed for cellular function and good health. “The unique aspect of this project is that Jillian is using natural coenzymes in living cells for diagnosis,” said Heikal, “and her results so far are encouraging.” This research was presented, in part, at the Fifth Workshop on Advanced TCSPC Techniques in Biomedical Sciences-Techniques and Applications in Bethesda, Maryland in November 2011, which was sponsored by the National Institute of Health and others.

Heikal, who over the past two decades has been invited dozens of times to publish journal articles and speak at conferences and seminars, continues to make new research discoveries that have impact on the scientific communities in chemistry, biochemistry, and biomedical research. One of his interdisciplinary collaborators is Erin Sheets, associate professor, Department of Pharmacy Practice and Pharmaceutical Sciences, College of Pharmacy Duluth. Heikal is an adjunct professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice & Pharmaceutical Sciences as well. Together Sheets and Heikal investigate how mast cells respond to allergens as a means of understanding the allergic response. The Heikal-Sheets connection goes beyond a professional relationship; they were married in 2002.

Considering how sophisticated these equipments are and the fact that lasers could be hazardous, Heikal works side-by-side with his students. “I enjoy working closely with students in the lab. We design experiments together, think of controls, and troubleshoot problems on the spot,” said Heikal.

As an undergraduate student, the work that Bartusek takes part in is nothing short of impressive and has already made a significant contribution to the scientific community.

Written by Cheryl Reitan and Jessica Coffin, December 2011

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