College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
AGNR Research

Faculty Research in Focus: Iqbal Hamza

Department of Animal & Avian Sciences
Photo Credit: 
Edwin Remsberg

Iqbal Hamza’s research in cell biology and genetics at the University of Maryland requires him to act both as a scientist and a detective simultaneously – a combination that makes him eager to arrive at his lab each and every day. “I get up in the morning and am dying to get to work because I literally cannot wait to find out what I’m going to uncover,” says Hamza, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences.

Throughout the nearly 11 years Hamza has worked at UMD, his research has mostly centered on heme – the iron-containing compound in blood that gives it its red color. Heme plays a vital role in nutrition as a key source of dietary iron. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder in the world affecting up to two billion people.

Before Hamza came to UMD, heme was largely a mystery to scientists, particularly how it enters and is transported throughout the body. One of Hamza’s first challenges was identifying a species that would allow him to study the compound closely. “Traditional organisms used in the research field – mice, for instance – all make their own heme. Therefore, how do you determine whether the heme came from inside or outside?” he says.

That’s when Hamza discovered C. elegans – a bloodless roundworm that doesn’t make its own heme but rather ingests it from bacteria in soil or decaying fruits and vegetables. Working with the worm led Hamza to his first major discovery in 2008 – when he identified the first heme transporter and corresponding human gene. He named it HRG-1 which stands for heme responsive gene. “The transporter acts like a valve,” explains Hamza. “If you shut it off, the heme and iron cannot flow.”

Since then, Hamza and his associates have identified two additional genes important in heme transport and absorption. He also expanded his research to involve zebrafish, a tropical fish whose embryos are completely transparent and makes abundant red blood cells that can be imaged easily.

Currently, Hamza’s state-of-the-art lab at the university brings in $700,000 annually through grants provided by the National Institutes of Health and the Roche Foundation for Anemia Research.  “The whole point is to apply what we’re working on to human nutrition,” he says.

Hamza has also developed a private company called Rakta Therapeutics, which is Sanskrit for blood. The company focuses on developing anti-parasitic drugs that target the parasites’ ability to hijack its host’s heme to survive.

A native of India, Hamza says he planned to be an air force pilot as a young man before he realized he wasn’t cut out for obeying orders. As a senior in college, he says he “fell in love” with biochemistry and that it “was like reading a novel.” However, it was while completing graduate studies at SUNY-Buffalo that Hamza discovered his passion for genetics. “Biochemistry allows you to roll up your sleeves and learn how the doors and windows work and how the nuts and bolts function,” says Hamza. “But if you want to identify the nuts and bolts, the window and the door themselves, that’s genetics.”

Although already considered a pioneer and world leader in his field, Hamza still has a lengthy list of questions he would like to have answers to before he concludes his research at UMD. “You’re only as good as what you’re going to do tomorrow,” he says. “Forget about yesterday. It’s history.”

Specifically, Hamza would like to uncover how heme gets into globin: the oxygen-carrying molecule in red blood cells. “If we knew that, we could make synthetic blood,” he says.

Eradicating at least one parasitic infection is another goal Hamza would like to achieve during his career, as well as having an impact on nutrition in developing countries.

“My ultimate objective though is to make the University of Maryland great,” says Hamza. “Given what we’ve already achieved, I’m very optimistic about the future. I hope to continue on this trajectory.”

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