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UTHealth researchers utilize $1 million grant to study retinal degenerative diseases

Photo of John O'Brien, Ph.D.
John O'Brien, Ph.D.

HOUSTON – (Nov. 10, 2017) - The William Stamps Farish Fund has awarded a $1 million grant to researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) to study how doctors can make progenitor cells in the retina regrow neurons that have been lost due to degenerative diseases that result in blindness.

John O’Brien, Ph.D., professor in the Ruiz Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Science at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, said the project will use zebrafish as a model system. Unlike mammals, fish can grow new neurons throughout their life and can insert new neurons into the retina, which is something humans can do only during early development.

The team will be examining the transcriptomes of progenitor cell populations and individual progenitor cells in the retina. “By using non-mammalian model systems that are able to regenerate neurons better, we can learn a lot about the transcriptional mechanisms that control differentiation of the progenitor cells,” said O’Brien. “We are looking for the master control genes that allow progenitor cells to form neurons.”

The research will use fish with retinal degeneration. These fish overproduce progenitors and continually replace lost photoreceptors. The knowledge gained from the research could translate into treating similar conditions in humans, he said.

Retinal degenerative diseases affect millions of people worldwide, with age-related macular degeneration being the leading cause of vision loss in Americans 50 and older, according to the American Optometric Association.

 -Written by Jonathan Garris

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