Camden County resident and Eastern High School graduate Leela Biswas was honored earlier this year by the American Medical Association for her work on genetic predictors for infertility.
Biswas is currently enrolled at Rutgers University-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in a dual doctoral M.D./Ph.D. program. She beat out an impressive 1,200 other contestants for the $10,000 AMA prize and recognition among peers for her hard (and still ongoing) work.
Biswas’ interest in infertility began when she was an undergraduate at Widener, and that focus has grown.
“I was really curious about precision medicine,” she said. “(Which is) personalized treatment based on diagnostics on a patient’s genetic and molecular makeup. The example I like to give is, many people we know have had experience where we felt that the answer we got (during care) was not tailored to us …
“Precision medicine is about making medicine tailored to the patient.”
Among the reasons Biswas is so drawn to the issue of infertility is its frequent occurrence and also how little it’s discussed. She noted that the number of ovary-bearing individuals measures out to around 10 percent at the minimum. That’s why Biswas’ research went against the grain of the “one size fits all” approach in medicine.
“(Infertility) is a more prevalent issue than a lot of people realize,” she offered. “It’s something that is very difficult for people to talk about. Miscarriage is an extremely painful (and emotional) experience.
“We don’t have all of the answers for the exact genetic makeup of a person (and) how it translates to their fertility.”
Something that Biswas said she enjoyed about the genetic predictor project is that she’s hopeful her research will not only help families trying to conceive, but also assist physicians in personalizing care for their patients along the way.
The Rutgers’ research team and Biswas have worked on the project since 2020 in the lab of Associate Professor Karen Schindler, who works with the Human Genetics Institute of New Jersey and the Department of Genetics at the Rutgers Schools of Arts and Sciences. Despite a few pandemic-related shutdowns, Biswas and the team hope to continue their research throughout the year and into 2024.
Leela’s preliminary findings indicate that genetic variants in the KIF18A protein-coding gene cause aneuploidy in mouse eggs, pointing to causing aneuploidy in human eggs, according to Schindler.
“Really the paradigm we’re thinking about is the empowerment of patients, of women with knowledge of their genetics, very far ahead of time and well before they conceive, they can have insight into how their eggs compare to their peers,” Biswas explained.
She also pointed out that age is the “most well-known” indicator of infertility but not always the actual reason why someone may be infertile. In reality, the leading cause of miscarriage is an abnormality in the cells of the embryo, a chromosomal abnormality called aneuploidy.
“The only way we currently have to predict in a clinic if a woman is going to ovulate or produce a chromosomally abnormal egg is her age …” Biswas noted. “Age is a great predictor; it works very well for a lot of people, but it doesn’t work for everybody. Those are average numbers.”
Robert Wood Johnson Dean Amy Murth said “Leela’s investigations add to the evidence-based knowledge our specialty can use to inform better patient care for individuals who experience infertility and pregnancy loss,”
Murth is also board-certified obstetrician whose research focuses on risks for preterm birth.
Biswas said her list of thank you’s could stretch forever, but some of those that have helped her along her journey include Pushpa Mirchandani, her childhood pediatrician; Siobhan Corbett, her second-year course director; Paul Weber, a mentor from Patient Centered Medicine and Medical Writing; Steve McMahaon, her undergraduate thesis director; and Jinchauan Xing, a Ph.D. collaborator from Rutgers.
“Those are some really important people to me,” said Biswas.
Currently, Biswas will finish out her Ph.D. program with Rutgers before returning for two more years of medical school. She described the dual doctorate program as “like a sandwich.”
Biswas does find time for hobbies: She has been an equestrian since middle school and has also studied Indian classical dance since her youth.