A passion to help others guides SBS grad to PhD

Charles Amankwa Sbs GradMore than a decade ago, Charles Amankwa was beginning a new career as a community pharmacist in Ghana, his home country, when he met a patient who would change the trajectory of his career.

“She came to the pharmacy to fill prescriptions aimed at easing her glaucoma,” Amankwa said. “Despite the cocktail of medications she was taking, the patient eventually lost her vision.”

That interaction ignited his curiosity to understand ocular diseases and to help develop better treatments that could save people’s sight.

“Each person I met, each story I heard, fueled my resolution to contribute to research that might one day be a breakthrough to many whose hope and sight depends on the scientific community,” Amankwa said. “Motivated by determination, grit and persistence, I applied and was accepted into HSC.”

At The University of North Texas at Health Science Center’s School of Biomedical Sciences, Amankwa’s research focused on a drug delivery platform that could help reduce the damage to the eye from the intraocular pressure and oxidative stress caused by glaucoma.

“The expectation is that the findings from this study will pave the way for new treatment paradigms that could arrest or halt retinal damage in patients with primary open angle glaucoma,” Amankwa said. “The goal is to offer viable therapeutic options to improve patient compliance with no overt side effects.”

Now, all these years after meeting a glaucoma patient at a pharmacy in Ghana, Amankwa graduated with his PhD in Biomedical Sciences, and he still carries a passion to help people like her.

After graduation, Amankwa aims to continue his research to enhance the effectiveness of the lab’s drug delivery platform and explore how it might benefit patients with other ocular diseases.

Tell me about your journey leading up to attending HSC.

I have always been passionate about reducing the global disease burden and emphasizing the importance of good health. For this, I pursued a degree in pharmacy back in Ghana which afforded me the invaluable opportunity to improve the quality of life of my clients through community practice and engagements. In addition to that, I completed a master’s degree in public health, gaining insights into disease epidemiology, biostatistics and the management of outbreaks, all of which set the right platform for a successful pursuit of my PhD studies with HSC.

What inspired you to pursue your degree at HSC?

In 2013, during the early days of my internship as a community pharmacist, I met a patient who profoundly impacted my career trajectory. She came to me with a prescription filled with a cocktail of topical medications aimed at lowering intraocular pressure for her glaucoma. Tragically, three years later, she lost sight in one eye.

This encounter sparked a burning desire within me to research into therapeutic targets for ocular diseases. I began participating in weekly community outreach events, where I met countless individuals struggling with similar unmet clinical needs.

Each person I met, each story I heard, fueled my resolve to contribute to research that might one day be a breakthrough to many whose hope and sight depends on the scientific community.

This led me to consult with a colleague who had started his PhD at HSC. Motivated by determination, grit and persistence, I applied and was accepted into HSC. My goal was to be near pharmaceutical companies, aspiring to advance within the company and contribute to pioneering treatments for glaucoma and other eye diseases.

Is there a project or experience that defined your time at HSC?

My project on the development of a drug delivery platform for my lab’s small molecule SA-2 was a direct reflection of my burning desire to address the neurodegenerative damage caused by glaucoma. What the lab wanted to do differently was to tackle glaucoma from two main angles: To investigate long term reduction of intraocular pressure and simultaneously protect ocular tissues such as the retina and the trabecular meshwork from oxidative stress induced damage.

Essentially, the goal was to have a longer duration of action, improve patient compliance and prevent the progressive deterioration of the retina and ocular tissues from death: an indirect way of slowing down the occurrence of blindness in glaucoma. This study rescued damaged eyes in pre-clinical mouse models of glaucoma.

The expectation is that the findings from this study will pave the way for new treatment paradigms that could arrest or halt retinal damage in patients with primary open angle glaucoma, offering a viable therapeutic option to improve patient compliance with no overt side effects.

What academic achievements or honors are you proud of?

I am honored to have won several awards during my time at HSC including Outstanding Graduate Student in Visual Sciences, SBS Travel Grants, Sigma Xi Research and Travel Grants, The Wordinger Memorial Scholarship, The Rachel Dauphin Memorial Scholarship and an award for my research at RAD in 2021.

What are your plans for the future?

My long-term aspiration is to continue advancing the knowledge in ocular therapies through research. My goal is to enhance the efficacy of our drug delivery platforms, particularly in clinical settings, and potentially transfer the benefits to other ocular diseases. In the short term, I am considering taking up roles in the academic setting as a postdoctoral scientist and possibly transition into a pharmaceutical industry long-term to contribute to the therapeutic drug development for ocular diseases.

Who had an impact on your success at HSC?

My journey began in Ghana, where numerous professors, my family and friends ignited my passion for science. At HSC, several individuals have been pivotal to my success. Dr. Suchismita Acharya (assistant professor of pharmacology and neuroscience at the North Texas Eye Research Institute), my mentor, has been particularly influential through her guidance and significantly shaping my research direction and growth.

My committee members and colleagues have also been crucial, providing insights and collaboration that enhanced my projects and of course the fun moments and relaxing times with them helped me navigate through challenges.

Moreover, the supportive diversity and friends coupled with the innovative academic environment here at HSC have been fundamental to my achievements and development as a researcher.

What advice do you have for current or future HSC students?

For current and future HSC students, I recommend engaging closely with mentors and peers, seizing every learning opportunity and balancing your academic efforts with personal well-being. I believe that with dedication, resilience and hard work, you can achieve your goals no matter the environment you find yourself in. I keep the 5ps mantra: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance!

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