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Student Research Focusing on Role of SUMO Proteins in Male Infertility

By Dave DeFusco

SUMO proteins, above, play a key role in spermatogenesis, or the production and regulation of sperm.

A Yeshiva University researcher and several Katz School graduate students will investigate how inhibiting the function of a cluster of small proteins in testicular cells affects spermatogenesis, or the production and regulation of sperm. The research is being supported in part by a grant from YU’s Provost Faculty Research Fund awarded to Dr. Rana Khan, founding director of the Katz School's M.S. in Biotechnology Management and Entrepreneurship.

Approximately one in eight married couples have trouble conceiving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and males are responsible for nearly half of all infertility cases. Infertility in men can be caused by several factors but in a significant percentage of cases, the contributing factor hasn’t been identified.

“This fact emphasizes the need for the better understanding of the process of spermatogenesis and its regulation,” said Dr. Margarita Vigodner, professor of biology at Stern College for Women, with a secondary appointment at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Dr. Vigodner, who has published widely on the subject and whose research has been supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and several students in the biotechnology master's program will try to characterize the role of these proteins, known as SUMO. These proteins attach to other proteins in cells, modifying their activity.

“We’ll try to inhibit these proteins in a cell culture, in purified cells and in mice through genetic manipulation,” said Dr. Vigodner. “When we inhibit them, we want to understand whether the proliferation and survival of the cells is changed and how the fertility of the mice is affected.”

Since some important proteins, like SUMO, don’t allow for a normal embryonic development when inhibited, one way to study their role is to genetically inactivate them only in specific cell types. In addition to using chemical inhibitors, the research team will use a scissors-like tool called a Cre-LoxP to snip, or inactivate, the SUMO-proteins in testicular cells.

“We’ll be focusing on understanding how different phases of spermatogenesis are regulated by these proteins," said Dr. Vigodner, "so that we can better understand the normal regulation of the process and what can go wrong when these proteins don’t function properly.”

Dr. Khan anticipates that two to three incoming students in the biotechnology program will join Dr. Vigodner’s lab during the upcoming academic year. "It is exciting to build this unique collaboration between the Katz School and Stern College for Women which we expect to yield leading research," she said.

Katz students will not only contribute to research in the lab but will learn important skills and different techniques of research. Dr. Khan added, “This experience will position them to gain entry into prestigious research centers, publish in peer-reviewed journals and present at scientific conferences.”

The M.S. in Biotechnology Management and Entrepreneurship is an interdisciplinary program designed specifically for the workforce needs of the biotechnology industry. The program provides students with knowledge in various areas of science, technology and business, equipping them with the skills to effectively bring pharma and biotech products to market.

In June, Dr. Selma Botman, provost and vice president for academic affairs, announced the 2022-2023 grant recipients for the Provost Faculty Research Fund, which provides grants up to $7,500 for material support and academic encouragement. The provost’s initiative invests over $100,000 annually for new research and to support faculty in innovative intellectual pursuits.