Examining Microbes

On His Way to Medical School, Nachum Lebovics Spent Summer at New York Medical College

September 21, 2018
LCM evening student Nachum Lebovics spent a summer doing research at Touro\'s New York Medical College.

“It’s a fascinating topic for me,” said Lebovics. “We tend to think that our characteristics are determined by the genes we inherit from our parents or some environmental influence and that’s the debate between nature and nurture. But recent technologies have allowed us to observe the very complex bacterial environment that plays a significant role in our physiology. There’s an unfathomable number of bacteria cells in our body.”

Microbe is the general term for the microscopic organisms in the body that do not include the body’s DNA but influence the body’s phenotype. Phenotype refers to the characteristics that are apparent in the organism. (In classical genetics, phenotype results from some of our genes “winning out” and being expressed.)

“What makes microbes so fascinating is that they demonstrate that our phenotype can be significantly influenced by cells that don’t carry our genes at all,” explained Lebovics. 

Lebovics, whose interest was kindled after doing a research project under LCM’s Dr. Kenneth Danishefsky, said that scientists believed that foreign bacteria outnumbered the body cells by a ten-to-one ratio, though more recent research has estimated it at a one-to-one ratio.

“It’s mind-boggling,” said Lebovics. “That still means that half the cells in your body do not have your genome. We might very well be influenced by microbes that have nothing to do with our genes.”

At the advice of Dr. Danishefsky, Lebovics reached out to Dr. Solomon Amar, Touro’s Provost of Biomedical Research, who connected him with Dr. Nasreen Haque at New York Medical College. In July, Lebovics began working in the lab examining the role of microbes in arteriosclerosis, a disease where the walls of the arteries thicken and harden because of plaque buildup.

“Arteriosclerosis is considered the leading cause of death and disability in the developed world,” explained Lebovics. “It begins to develop in children and, by age sixty, the majority of people are affected by it to some degree.”

One of the causes of arteriosclerosis, Lebovics explained, is bad cholesterol that passes through the cells into the linings of the arteries. The body then sends white blood cells to attack the cholesterol, but the cells accumulate in the lining.

“It ends up a big mess of dead immune cells, fibrous tissue and cholesterol that calcifies until it either stops the blood flow or ruptures and then you have a thrombus, a blood clot.” 

For his work, Lebovics isolated the DNA from bacteria found in the atherosclerotic plaque that was removed from effected arteries in a procedure called a carotid endarterectomy. He then prepared the DNA for sequencing. Lebovics also did a literature review of more than 40 studies that profiled the different bacteria that are associated with the disease.

“There are a number of species of bacteria found in the plaque,” stated Lebovics. “Researchers hypothesize that the microbes associated with atherosclerosis may play a role in the disease. Instead of a particular pathogen causing atherosclerosis, it might have more to do with the quantity and diversity of the microbes.”

Lebovics said that his time in the lab provided an opportunity for personal growth.

“It’s really valuable to be in a real-world environment instead of a school-environment where I can have the opportunity to show my skills and take charge of my own development,” said Lebovics. “At the lab, learning is up to me. My boss is there to pursue her results and contribute to a growing body of knowledge and the responsibility of learning falls on my shoulders. I gained from that.”

Lebovics will be graduating in January and plans to attend medical school.

“Over the summer I got to see the non-scientific aspects of the medical pursuit,” said Lebovics. “Like getting funding and lab safety issues. I saw how pathologists work and how samples sent to them are analyzed. One day as a doctor I will gain from that when I have to send a sample into the pathologist.”

As for his reasons for choosing medicine, Lebovics said it offered him the combination of an intellectually challenging field that helps others. He also stressed his father’s effect on him.

“My greatest role model is my father, a physician,” said Lebovics. “I see how he goes into work loving what he does and getting a real gratification with the career he’s chosen. That’s something I want my kids to see in me.”