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Meraj Khan, B.Sc., M.Sc., PhD
1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I grew up in a small village of Uttar Pradesh, India. After completing my primary education, I passed the entrance examination to be enrolled into the University at Aligarh for further education. I completed high school, senior secondary school and my undergrad degree in chemistry (honors) from the same university. From there, I moved to the capital city, Delhi, for my master’s degree and PhD. I completed my master’s degree in Biotechnology at Hamdard University and doctorate from All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, which is one of the premier medical research institutes in India. My doctoral research training was in the field of cellular and molecular implantation biology, primarily focused on endometriosis and placental biology genomics.
After completing my doctorate, I planned to further diversify my scientific and educational expertise, which is what triggered me to come to Toronto for my post-doctoral research training in the innate immunity and lung infectious disease laboratory at SickKids.
2. What are you researching right now?
Our immune system has two different types of defense mechanisms: adaptive and innate. What I examine in my research is the neutrophils, an innate immune cell. During any infection or disease condition, neutrophils are the most abundant white blood cells (WBCs), which come first to the site of infection, just as the paramedics are the first to arrive on scene. It has been known for a while how neutrophils work. When our body gets an infection, the neutrophils phagocytose (or eat bacteria). However, it was recently discovered that neutrophils do something else. When there are too many bacteria, they release a net-like structure to capture and kill the bacteria. This unique neutrophil function is referred to as Neutrophil Extracellular Traps (NETs). Now we are examining at what state these cells decide not to eat bacteria, but to cast NETs.
We consider NETs as a “double edge sword.” While they are crucial in fighting off infections, too much can actually cause an adverse effect on surrounding tissues and organs. In cystic fibrosis (CF) for example, it is the over production of NETs that results in difficult breathing for CF patients. I would like to understand the mechanisms involved in inducing and preventing NETosis, so that we are able to develop drugs to either stop or activate this process. I am currently applying a multidimensional approach to better understand the signaling and triggering components for NETs in order to screen and validate NET inhibiting drugs.
I anticipate these finding would be helpful in understanding the mechanism of NETs formation and provide better therapeutic options for infectious, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
There are definitely a few scientists that I would consider my favourite. Two that come to mind are James Watson and Francis Crick, who deciphered the structure of DNA. That discovery opened up many avenues for ground-breaking research in the field of molecular biology. The story of every physiological functionality and morphological differentiation starts from nucleic acid (DNA).
4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
The discovery of nucleic acid and its structure really intrigued me, which is why I love genomics and transcriptomics. In my field, I believe this is the most important scientific breakthrough.
The mechanisms behind DNA coiling, uncoiling, replication and so on have revealed many facts. Cells in different tissues are all unique, and perform different specific functions, though each cell contains the same DNA and originated from the same genetic material. The programming, reprogramming and transcription of specific loci of DNA differentiate each cell in terms of their functionality. I think these findings are the foundation stones in the field of molecular biology. This information paved the way for future scientists to diversify their research. Genetic manipulation has allowed us to better treat and predict diseases, benefiting more areas of the scientific research field. In addition, I see the discovery of antibiotics as another major scientific breakthrough.
5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I like to explore nature. I love to travel and enjoy site seeing, visiting lakes and so on. This helps me to appreciate natural diversity and triggers my thought process, often inspiring my future research studies. I also enjoy helping out in the community, either directly or indirectly through my research endeavours. After my work, I love spending quality time with my family.
6. Why science?
Curiosity to know how and why drives my love for science. Every natural system flora or fauna is very complex and highly robust. I can’t explore and research every aspect of life, but I am really passionate about research and understanding human physiology. Research and innovation furthers our existing knowledge, while teaching produces more thinkers to carry forward further research. I believe that scientific research and teaching (transferring knowledge) can change the world. Illness, chronic diseases and disorders collectively affects the mental, socio-economic status of people globally. Therefore I hope that my philosophy, thinking, research and constant search for a cure to diseases is the best way to serve humanity. I love science and want to be considered an innovative scientist myself as I continue in my career!
7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is equipped with state-of-the-art research infrastructure. The environment at SickKids bridges the research “bench side” and the clinical “bed side,” bringing together one of the strongest groups of research scientists in North America. Working with these individuals provides a lot of opportunity for collaboration, performing different experiments and interpreting data. There is a lot of flexibility within the domain to think, plan and perform innovative research. I appreciate my mentor Dr. Nades Palaniyar for his intellectual support, guidance and appreciation – he encourages me to continue establishing a strong scientific network. So far at SickKids, I have completed great research, mentored students and published high-quality research data. This is an excellent place to work and learn.
8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
Neutrophils are short-lived innate immune cells. These cells respond quickly to stimuli, and die within minutes to hours. Neutrophils undergo NETosis, by releasing DNA forming NET-like structures to trap and kill bacteria. The relevance of DNA transcription in neutrophils has remained an enigma for several decades. If transcription is happening, what is the purpose of it? We are exploring this aspect and are soon hoping to discover whether transcription is needed or not and to what extent this is important for NETosis and related cellular functionality.
9. What are you reading right now?
I read a lot of research articles to keep up to date on current research in (and outside) my field. I am also involved in editorial boards and reviewing articles from many journals. This tends to take lots of time, so usually I give priority to scientific reading.
10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
The four most important key elements are motivation, hard work, patience and optimism. You need to have a question (always try to think and ask “why”). If you have questions then you can proceed to work for the solution. It’s not possible to always get the answers to all your questions but patience and hard work will pay off. Sometimes your questions are not the most valid or logical but investigating why and how is a very important part of the thought-provoking process. In the end, the overall purpose of science is to get the solution, whenever, whatever that may be!