Rutgers med student wins AMA research challenge for studying genetic predictor for infertility

Leelabati “Leela” Biswas has earned national acclaim — and a grand prize of $10,000 — for her efforts to validate a genetic biomarker tied to miscarriages.

Biswas, who is pursuing a dual doctoral degree in medicine and microbiology and molecular genetics from Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, earned the recognition for her research, “Decoding Pregnancy Loss, Validating a Novel Genetic Biomarker of Poor Egg Quality.”

A one-size-fits-all approach to health care — especially when it comes to infertility — didn’t sit well with Biswas. So, the aspiring physician-scientist sought answers in a genetics lab at Rutgers University – New Brunswick.

All those hours on Busch Campus paid off for Biswas with the 2022 award of the American Medical Association Research Challenge.

Biswas also took part in an episode of the association’s podcast, “AMA Making the Rounds.” The finals of the competition aired on YouTube.

Infertility, Biswas said, “is a more prevalent issue than a lot of people realize,” adding that a minimum of about 10% of ovary-bearing individuals — “estimates can range even higher” — are diagnosed with infertility in the U.S. “So, that’s one out of every 10 women, at least.”

Poor quality eggs often have the wrong number of chromosomes. If these eggs are fertilized, they most frequently result in early miscarriages.

Biswas’ research beat out nearly 1,200 entries in the competition, which the AMA describes as “the largest national, multispecialty research event for medical students, residents and international medical graduates.”

Seeking to identify a genetic predictor of infertility, Biswas conducted her research in the lab of Karen Schindler, an associate professor at the Human Genetics Institute of New Jersey and the Department of Genetics at the Rutgers Schools of Arts and Sciences.

Biswas said the award brings “a lot of attention to a really important, pressing, understudied and underfunded issue as well as highlights the excellent training and research being done here at Rutgers. I think it will help springboard continued studies as well as help me become a physician-scientist who really focuses on precision medicine and bringing better solutions to individuals that are more personalized and based on who they are and what makes them them.”

Biswas’ research involved taking a cohort of nearly 3,000 patients from a local infertility clinic, selecting 200 patient samples from individuals who had extreme rates of egg aneuploidy (having the wrong number of chromosomes in cells) relative to maternal age and then using genetic sequencing to identify variants. Those variants were tested in mouse eggs, which are similar to human eggs. The variants found in the human genomes were then introduced into mouse genomes for more detailed studies.

Her preliminary findings indicate that genetic variants in the KIF18A protein-coding gene cause aneuploidy in mouse eggs, pointing to causing aneuploidy in human eggs, Schindler said.

Biswas, who was born in Maryland and moved to New Jersey when she was 6 months old, earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, and completed her undergraduate research thesis at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia before enrolling at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“Rutgers was a natural choice,” Biswas said. “I get to be relatively close to home and part of an institution that I’ve been familiar with my entire life as a bastion of excellent clinical care, as the premier academic medical center in the state of New Jersey. It’s an excellent institution.”

She added: “I have great mentors at Rutgers, both in the medical school and the graduate school.”