Prof. Peter Lwigale, a Ugandan scientist based in the U.S. — will collect $1.5 million (about Shs5.7 billion) to fund his research on the treatment of some eye infections.
Prof. Lwigale, whose laboratory is based at Rice University, a private research university in Houston, Texas — is studying how a recently identified protein in the cornea aids development, homeostasis and wound healing in the eye.
The grant will be provided by the U.S. government through National Institutes of Health, an agency responsible for biomedical and public health research.
The researcher will the next four years use the funds to examine nephronectin (Npnt), a protein his lab recently discovered is abundantly expressed in the eye’s extracellular matrix.
According to Texas Medical Center, the lab is investigating whether Npnt and its binding partners play key roles during formation, maintenance and repair of the cornea.
Npnt was discovered fairly recently in 2001 as a regulator of cell adhesion that is required for kidney and bone development.
However, Prof. Peter Lwigale, who has extensively researched biochemistry and cell biology, says its role in the early development and maintenance of the anterior eye — the tissues of the front third of the eyeball, including the cornea — is new information.
The Lwigale lab is working to decode the molecular mechanisms of periocular neural crest cells, a multipotent embryonic cell population that provides crucial signals and contributes to cellular and extracellular components as they migrate and differentiate into the cornea.
“More than 90% of the cornea is made from these embryonic stem cells. They give rise to two distinct cell types that populate the inner layer, called the corneal endothelium, and the collagenous middle layer,called the stroma,” Prof. Lwigale is quoted as saying by the Texas Medical Center.
“These two layers, together with the corneal epithelium (the outermost layer), play a critical role in maintaining corneal transparency and integrity,” he adds.
“In addition to the cornea, the neural crest cells contribute to various ocular tissues including the iris, the muscles around the eyes and the trigeminal sensory nerves that innervate the cornea. We came across nephronectin in the process of trying to understand the genes that direct those stem cells to make the different tissues of the anterior eye.”
The lab’s specific goals under the grant are to determine nephronectin’s role during the migration of periocular neural crest cells into the cornea, how it helps establish the corneal epithelial and endothelial basement membranes, and how it helps maintain the cornea’s health.
“We are observing that this protein helps cells to stick together and to other ocular proteins during periocular neural crest cell migration and that it is involved the formation of the barriers that are important for the cornea to continue to function well,” Prof. Peter Lwigale said.
“We are grateful for the continued support from the National Eye Institute that has enabled us to investigate the various aspects of ocular development, including cell migration and differentiation, neurovascular patterning and wound healing.”
Prof. Lwigale, who hails from Jinja, has a bachelor of science in Biology from the University of Northern Iowa.
In 1997, he graduated with a master of science in Cell & Developmental Biology from the same university and proceeded to Kansas State University, where he obtained a Ph.D. in Cell & Developmental Biology.
His research has mainly been about the molecular regulation of cornea development and regeneration, neural crest cell migration and differentiation, trigeminal Sensory innervation, ocular vasculogenesis and cornea avascularity, Cornea wound healing/regeneration.