Q&A with Dr. Hamed Jafar-Nejad
By Quirine Eijkenboom, Featuring Dr. Hamed Jafar-Nejad
1) NGLY1 is a global team. Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Rasht, the capital of the Gilan (a.k.a. Guilan) province in Iran. My hometown is located between the Caspian Sea from the North and the Alborz mountain range from the South. It had an urban population of around 680,000 in the 2016 census.
2) How did you get into science and how did you select your particular area of focus?
During my medical school years at Tehran University, I gradually realized that I was not passionate about seeing patients. I decided to explore another profession related to my medical training that does not involve clinical activities. I did not have any experience with scientific research when I finished medical school. During my two-year obligatory service after graduation, it occurred to me that I should try basic research to get away from clinical practice as much as I can. A combination of my perseverance, serendipitous events and critical support from my mentors (Dr. Paul Albert at the University of Ottawa and Dr. Hugo Bellen at HHMI/Baylor College of Medicine) helped me move from Iran to North America and obtain training in basic biomedical research.
3) What sparked your interest in studying the roles of glycosylation and deglycosylation in animal development and human disease?
In a genetic screen for modifiers of the so-called Notch signaling pathway in fruit flies, we discovered a new glycosyltransferase (Rumi/POGLUT1) involved in the modulation of this pathway. This finding coincided with my transition to an independent faculty position. Given the functional conservation between the fly Rumi and human POGLUT1, I decided to build my research program at the interface of glycobiology and animal development. Later on, we and our collaborators linked POGLUT1 to two human diseases.
When Grace’s NGLY1 mutations were discovered by my colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine, the Wilsey family decided to fund basic scientists to study NGLY1 in various contexts. They consulted with Dr. Huda Zoghbi, who connected me with the Wilsey family because of my expertise and interest in glycobiology. I then sent a research proposal to the family, which was funded and allowed us to start a project on a Drosophila model of NGLY1 deficiency.
4) What do you consider to be your most fascinating/interesting finding so far?
That altering the structure and distribution of glycans attached to a number of signaling proteins has profound effects on animal development and can contribute to a number of human diseases.
5) What intrigues you the most when it comes to NGLY1 mechanics?
Despite the recent progress in the field, we still don’t know the precise mechanism underlying any of the NGLY1 deficiency phenotypes in human patients.
6) What are the benefits of working with Drosophila to understand the role of NGLY1 in animal development?
Many of the fundamental cell biological processes and developmental paradigms used in mammals are conserved in flies. There is less redundancy in the fly genome compared to the mammalian genomes. Powerful tools are available to modify the fly genome. Fly work is significantly cheaper than mouse work.
7) What do you think are the most promising medical innovations?
I think CRISPR-Cas9, induced pluripotent stem cells and optogenetics are among the most promising innovations made in recent years.
8) What do you think will bring us closer to a cure for NGLY1 Deficiency?
To continue the multi-disciplinary approach that Grace Science Foundation has promoted and supported during the last 4-5 years, while always maintaining an eye on the ultimate goal of these endeavors, namely to find a cure for the disease; to continue and further foster the interactions among the scientists who are contributing to NGLY1 research.
9) What excites you the most about working in the scientific/medical field?
The freedom to focus on new scientific problems; the excitement of making unexpected discoveries; to know/hope that no matter how small the outcome of our work is in comparison to the unknown and the unknowable, it is an addition to human knowledge.
10) What do you enjoy doing in your free time? How do you unwind after work?
Playing music; reading; spending time with family and friends; watching movies.
11) Do you have a favorite motto? If yes, what is it?
I don’t have a favorite motto, but the following two sentences are among those that resonate with me:
“Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me.” Sigmund Freud
“The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.” Carl Jung
Image: © Chung Li Photography.