Dr. Maliha Zahid Reaches New Heights of Innovative Research, Medical Practice… and Classical Dance

Dr. Maliha Zahid

Physician scientist Maliha Zahid, MD, PhD, FACC, joined the JHF board in 2021 and has brought her multifaceted perspective and energy to her role. Dr. Zahid is a practicing cardiologist at ExcelaHealth Physician Practices and assistant professor of developmental biology at the University of Pittsburgh. She is also chief scientific officer of Vivasc Therapeutics and a senior member of the National Academy of Innovators. Her current research interests include developing novel vectors to target heart and lung tissue to deliver cargo of interest specifically to these organs to ameliorate cardiac and pulmonary pathologies respectively; studying mechanisms of normal cell antenna development (also known as ciliogenesis); and developing innovative treatment solutions for various diseases. She received the 2018 Emerging Innovators Award from the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute and is a three-time Pittsburgh Innovation in Research Award winner and was elected senior member to the National Academy of Innovators in 2022. In the summer of 2022, Dr. Zahid will be joining Mayo Clinic as a clinician investigator.

Born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, Dr. Zahid grew up surrounded by female role models who represented strength and empowerment in a male-dominated world: her entrepreneurial mother, who began college at age 29 after a divorce and later opened her own printing press business; Dr. Zahid's grandmother; and the teachers who ran Dr. Zahid's school. Dr. Zahid is grateful to her mother for enrolling her in a private school beginning in 6th grade, which gave her access to smaller class sizes and a more personalized, focused education. Her experience was a departure from the norms of the time, when girls' education was considered an afterthought. One teacher, Mrs. Gertrude Baptist, inspired Dr. Zahid's love of science and helped Dr. Zahid achieve her dream of becoming a doctor, which she held since childhood. Knowing that the medical school application process was competitive, Dr. Zahid had several backup plans, including becoming a research scientist or training as a world-class dancer. Channeling the spirit of the women in her life, Dr. Zahid has followed all three paths.

After graduating with her medical degree from Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, Dr. Zahid worked as a clinical research assistant in Lahore and then made her way to St. Louis, Missouri, for an internal medicine internship and residency. Dr. Zahid then relocated to Pittsburgh for a cardiovascular disease fellowship and went on to join the PhD program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health.

"My career path is a little bit nontraditional, to say the least," says Dr. Zahid, who continued practicing as a cardiologist throughout her doctoral program. "Nobody could fathom that you could be a PhD student and not be full time. So, the only folks who were willing to take a chance and do this experiment with me were my mentor, Dr. Paul Robbins, and my PhD advisor, Dr. Robert Ferrell, who was the head of the department of human genetics. They thought it was a very unusual proposition, but they decided to go along with it, and the experiment worked."

While Robbins' lab was focused on gene therapy for diabetes and arthritis research, he allowed Dr. Zahid to direct her own research focus. "I'm grateful to him for giving me enough leeway and liberty to pursue my own research interests." This freedom led to a major breakthrough.

While completing her PhD program, Dr. Zahid discovered the cardiac targeting peptide (CTP), which could serve as a novel vector for heart tissue and heart muscle cells. As one of many potential applications, Dr. Zahid is researching whether CTP could improve use of a common and effective heart rhythm control drug, amiodarone, which can only be used safely on a short-term basis because it becomes toxic to other parts of the body over time. Amiodarone attached to CTP can then be delivered specifically to hear cells where it is needed. This reduces the dose needed and limits side effects. With the support of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, Dr. Zahid and her team "are doing some testing in guinea pigs, and it's very preliminary, but we are hopeful."

Dr. Zahid is also the primary investigator for NIH-funded research on developing chronic obstructive lung disease therapies and a cystic fibrosis research project through the University of Pittsburgh Clinical and Translational Science Institute. Her research has received prior grants from the American Heart Association and National Science Foundation.

"Because of my practice and because of my physician focus, my research has ended up being very translational and closer to application than more basic research would be. And I think they both grow from each other," says Dr. Zahid. "I think being both an MD and PhD is like sitting on a fence and being able to see both sides of a field. I truly think that being a PhD improves me as a cardiologist, and being a physician makes my science a little bit more relevant."

Dr. Zahid also mentors the next generation of physician scientists. After gaining her own lab in 2020, Dr. Zahid began offering research experiences to high school and college students who aspire to attend medical school. This inspired her to create a scholarship for top female students interested in STEM fields, in her teacher's name, at her high school alma mater. The scholarship is now in its second year.

Pursuing her "third dream" of becoming a world-class ballroom dancer in her spare time, Dr. Zahid dances with a Pittsburgh-based troupe. Dr. Zahid first began classical Indian dancing as a child, a realization of one of her grandmother's dreams, as dancing by women was culturally prohibited in her grandmother's early years. After taking a hiatus while completing her medical studies, Dr. Zahid returned to the dance floor while pursuing her PhD. Around the same time, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and dancing has become her way of proactively tackling the disease and maintaining her health.

Dr. Zahid is now preparing to join Mayo Clinic as a clinician investigator, where she will continue to pursue her novel research. She is particularly excited to see future innovations in targeted drug delivery and personalized medicine. But her Pittsburgh roots run deep, and Dr. Zahid will take with her the insights of her Pittsburgh colleagues, including those at JHF. Dr. Zahid says being part of the JHF board has been an educational experience and that JHF's persistent work in policy change parallels what she hopes for the ultimate outcome of her research: "affecting and improving the lives of people that you've never met or will see." 

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