MUSCAT—Ammar Boudaka shows a mixture of pride and embarrassment as he gives me a tour of the on-campus animal facility at Sultan Qaboos University. “I apologize for the smell, it will be quite bad,” he says, as we don our protective clothing in the reception area.
The facility—one of just a few in the Middle East—breeds a menagerie of genetically diverse mice and rats. Mice are one of the most frequently used models of human disease because, despite major differences in appearance between the two species, they are biologically very similar. Having the rodents on site allows scientists at the university to conduct an array of different medical trials. Boudaka, for example, uses rodents with high blood pressure to investigate the condition.
Studies have shown that high blood pressure is the leading cause of strokes, heart attacks and kidney failure. All these diseases are on the rise in the Arab world—additionally, heart disease caused by high blood pressure is the ninth biggest cause of death in the region, according to 2010 data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
As we step into the animal facility, I discover Boudaka wasn’t wrong about the smell. When he opens the door from reception to the breeding rooms, the odor wafts through. The scent is a strong mixture of animal feed, sawdust and a farmyard-like fragrance coupled with the clinic aromas of cleaning fluid.
But as we progress from room to room and Boudaka shows off the various genetic strains of mice and rats they can breed, the smell doesn’t seem to hamper his enthusiasm.
“A facility like this means we’re able to do serious research at international standards,” he says.
Rare Mice and High Blood Pressure
Boudaka, originally from Libya, studied for his Ph.D. at Gifu University in Japan and has been an assistant professor in the department of physiology at Sultan Qaboos University since 2012. A few years ago, with the help of former colleagues in Gifu, he was able to import some especially rare rodents from Japan that have helped him create new biological insights.
The Japanese mice were genetically altered so that their cell membranes didn’t have a receptor known as TRPV4. Boudaka used these mice to discover a new purpose for the receptor—he showed that it has a role in digesting food.
When an animal eats something, parts of the esophagus stretch as the food presses against it. The receptor responds to this pressure and sends signals to the central nervous system to begin the muscle contractions that push food through the gullet and digestive organs.