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UT scientists study small organelle with big responsibilities

For decades, many thought primary cilia had no function; but at The University of Toledo, researchers discovered they could be involved in cardiovascular and polycystic kidney diseases.

Dr. Wissam AbouAlaiwi shows the three journals that published his team's research on primary cilia.

Dr. Wissam AbouAlaiwi shows the three journals that published his team’s research on primary cilia.

Dr. Wissam AbouAlaiwi, assistant professor in the UT Department of Pharmacology, leads this research. He and his team have discovered that primary cilia, vestigial cellular organelles on the surface of every cell in the human body, sense the flow of fluids outside of the cell and create a biochemical signal inside the cell.

This mechanosensory function is particularly important in sensing the flow of urine in the kidneys and blood in the cardiovascular system. In patients with polycystic kidney disease, a mutation causes the primary cilia to lose this function.

The cilia malfunctioning could contribute to many cellular defects. The group demonstrated that cell division is perturbed, which could cause both renal cysts and vascular aneurysms in patients.

“Both of [effects] are forms of a tubule ballooning, so we think the pathogenesis in the cilia function could contribute to these two processes — the cyst formation in the kidney, and the aneurysm formation in the blood vessels,” AbouAlaiwi said.

This research has been published in three major journals, the most recent being Circulation, a publication of the American Heart Association that ranks No. 1 in the cardiac and cardiovascular systems and peripheral vascular disease fields. Before that, his team’s research was featured on the cover of both Circulation Research and Human Molecular Genetics.

In each publication, AbouAlaiwi includes the students in his lab as primary authors and co-authors because he believes they deserve to be recognized for their hard work. Though he only has been a faculty member at UT for one year, he enjoys it and is passionate about teaching his research to his students.

AbouAlaiwi has written articles with students Brian S. Muntean, Shao T. Lo, Rahul M. Prasad, Xingjian Jin, Christine M. Horvat, Hanan S. Haymour, Viralkumar S. Upadhyay, Maki Takahashi, Jangyoun Hwang and James S. Behler.

“Our job as faculty is teaching, research and service to the University,” AbouAlaiwi said. “These three things come together; we teach what we discover in our research, and both of these things contribute to our service to the UT community.”

AbouAlaiwi hopes to use this research to create new therapeutic interventions for patients with polycystic kidney disease.

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