Rizwan Ahmed

Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is a major childhood autoimmune disease that results from the destruction of insulin-producing beta cells by islet-reactive T cells, making patients on dependent on insulin replacement for survival. However, insulin replacement is not a cure and many patients suffer long term complications, including cardiovascular, renal and neuropathy. We hypothesize that lack of therapy to protect at risk individuals or slowing loss of beta cells in newly diagnosed patients are a result of lack of key information regarding how the disease develop.

I am doing my research at Hamad’s lab in the department of Pathology. We have discovered a new adaptive immune cell that combines lineage characteristics of both B and T cells and clonally expanded in Type 1 Diabetes patients. We refer to this hybrid lymphocytes as dual expressers (DEs) because they co-express the B cell receptor (BCR) and the T cell receptor (TCR) and we generally call them “X cells” to denote their crossover phenotype. Phenotypic and functional characteristics of X cells which are recently published in the prestigious Journal Cell are expected to open a new line of research that can lead to new breakthroughs in the field of autoimmunity that are relevant not only to type 1 diabetes but also are other autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus.

Briefly, our findings indicate that the X cell are major drivers of type 1 diabetes by bearing an insulin mimic that cross-stimulates insulin-reactive T cells that go on to infiltrate pancreas and destroy insulin-producing beta cells. We believe these findings together with our ongoing research are preparing the platform for developing a biomarker that helps screen individuals at risk for developing Type 1 diabetes at very early age, possibly at birth and lay the groundwork for developing immunotherapies that target X cells for elimination for protecting at risk individuals.

Questions & Answers

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I was passionate about joining Johns Hopkins because of their history of scientific excellence and world-renowned groundbreaking research. The research at Hopkins is very exciting and stimulating and I chose this institution because I wanted to be challenged and learn as much as possible. Additionally, Hopkins is recognized for its excellent research resources and collaborative environment. After spending 5 years at Hopkins, I can say that Hopkins is indeed a bountiful place where anyone can turn their innovative ideas into discovery. I love Johns Hopkins and I am proud that I am a part of this institution.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

The truth is, failure and success are linked. Chances are you will fail (black dots) several times before you achieve your goals. Looking back, I can now reconnect all my dots that, I believe, shaped me to get this Paul Ehrlich award. I started my PhD research with the ultimate focus on investigating monoclonal antibodies “magic bullet” as a diagnostic and/or therapeutic tool to target diseases. My PhD research and experiences helped me at Hamad’s lab in discovering a new lymphocyte and discovering a new set of monoclonal antibodies that is produced by X cell and appears to play a critical role in instigating development of type 1 diabetes. Paul Ehrlich popularized the concept of “magic bullet” as an immunotherapy and this award in his name feels particularly fitting and correlates with my research promises. I feel honored and humbled for receiving this award, and it is a huge motivator for me to continue pursuing a career in research.

What contributed to your project’s success?

This journey was one of the most challenging through my academic career. In this project we asked a paradigm-shifting, fundamental question that would change the field of immunology. It was not an easy road as this project went through many challenges before reaching success. I owe this success to my mentor Dr. Hamad whose guidance, continuous support, and encouragement certainly paved the way to reach the goal. He believed in me and trusted me to lead this important project but also taught me about what’s important (both personally and professionally). The biggest lesson I learned is that “knowledge” will benefit your idea but “believing” in your idea is the most critical step on the path to success. Additionally, I was also fortunate to have a smart, cohesive team, and a creative, collaborative working environment that positively impacted my project. I also owe a special thanks to my family, teachers, and friends for their support, which helped me overcome every obstacle.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

A goal and a vision are only dreams unless you take consistent action to bring them to life. Motivation is one of the many things that keep us going and let us continue to strive for our dreams. Young Investigators’ Day sparks this motivation by recognizing and encouraging the young researcher for their great contributions to research excellence at Johns Hopkins. I am grateful to have been selected and will keep working untiringly to contribute to significant research advances in science.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

It’s been five years since I joined Hopkins, but I still remember my first day here and the time I met Dr. Hamad. It’s difficult to choose one moment but if I want to recollect, I would say each day working with Dr. Hamad was exciting and fascinating and it was something I’d never thought would happen. I particularly enjoyed the scientific discussions that I’ve had with Dr. Hamad and my colleagues that not only get my adrenaline going, but also entice my appetite for doing exciting (and sometimes poking) experiments. I will never forget Dr. Hamad’s constant reminder “Rizwan you are almost there” whenever I felt my goal to be unattainable.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I have plans to finish up the current projects (including my own research grant that was recently approved from the DRC foundation) and I’m looking forward to establishing myself as an independent faculty member.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I like the idea of playing with ideas and juxtaposing things and then seeing what happens. I don’t do it all the time, I wish I could, but I feel that this is one of the things I enjoy about science and that is sort of musical to me. In my free time, I like reading, listening to music and channeling my imagination through graphics illustration and architectural design.