Xitiz Chamling

Immune mediated loss of myelin sheaths (a process called demyelination) from the neurons in the brain and/or spinal cord causes neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS). In the human brain and spinal cord, myelin acts as an insulating material that coats and protects neurons and helps conduct information between the brain and various parts of our body. In order to improve function and reduce disability in patients with MS, it is desirable to develop therapies that both: 1) inhibit the activity of disease-causing immune cells, and 2) promote remyelination of axons by oligodendrocytes, the specialized cells that produce myelin sheath. Currently, all available drugs for MS focus on controlling a patient’s immune response. No drugs are available that can directly promote remyelination. In our laboratory, we have established an efficient method to grow human oligodendrocyte cells. We are using the gene editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to insert fluorescent markers and reporter sequences into specific genes so that the cells that become oligodendrocytes will be molecularly labeled. The labeled cells can be easily detected, identified and purified. Using these cells, we have established an assay platform to screen for drugs that promote myelin formation. We are beginning to test libraries of drugs to identify a lead drug that can promote the remyelination capacity of the human oligodendrocyte cells and prevent them from dying under stressful conditions. This research is conducted in Donald J. Zack’s laboratory in the Department of Ophthalmology.

Questions & Answers

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I found that Johns Hopkins has numerous state-of-the-art resources and a very collaborative research environment. In addition, I also like the geographical location of Johns Hopkins. A lot of big research institutes such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), and the Food and Drug Administration are within a short driving distance to Hopkins. In fact, proximity to NCATS has allowed our laboratory to collaborate with researchers there and even drive there to perform experiments.

What contributed to your project’s success?

Guidance, support and encouragement from my mentor, Don Zack, certainly played a huge role in the success of this project. Similar to most of the research, this project also went through a lot of failures. Therefore, I would say, perseverance and commitment from my end is another factor. In addition, discussing our research with other scientists (even the ones outside our scientific niche) and getting their feedback and suggestions was also very helpful.

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

Working in the collaborative setting of the Wilmer Eye Institute has been a very positive and memorable experience in general. Outside of work, I started a family during my time at Hopkins. We recently had our first baby, which is probably the most memorable experience.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

Moving to the United States and building a life here is probably my most interesting life experience, especially because I came to the United States for college, on my own, when I was 18 years old.