First-year medical student Tedi Begaj will spend his summer conducting research on a degenerative retinal disease that can lead to blindness in the lab of HHMI researcher Constance Cepko, PhD, thanks to a Summer Medical Fellows Program award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
The prestigious HHMI summer fellowship provides no more than 20 medical students nationally with the opportunity to perform research in the labs of current HHMI investigators, with the goal of fostering a love of research in future physicians and deepening the pool of physician-scientists. The program is open to first- and second-year medical students who are not enrolled in MD/PhD programs. The $5,000 stipend will allow Begaj (shown at right) to focus his attention on research for 10 weeks during the summer.
Begaj will carry out his project “Cone cell targeted gene therapy by AAV-mediated delivery,” in Dr. Cepko’s labs at Harvard Medical School, where she studies “the mechanisms that direct development and degeneration of the retina, a relatively simple and well-characterized area of the central nervous system.”
“Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is a degenerative retinal disease that can lead to blindness. Mutations in rod photoreceptor genes lead not only to rod dystrophy, but also eventual cone death [degeneration potentially caused by inadequate nourishment],” said Begaj. He will explore the possibility of utilizing gene therapy in order to preserve cone cells, which are destroyed in RP. Over the summer, he hopes to master research techniques including AAV production and purification (the tool that delivers the gene therapy), sub-retinal injections, immunohistochemistry and confocal microscopy.
As an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, Begaj studied biomedical engineering and medical optics. Ophthalmology combines his love of engineering with his love of medicine. Students who complete HHMI Summer Medical Fellowships are encouraged to apply to the year-long Medical Research Fellows Program.