Dispatches from ARVO 2013: Life-Changing Research, Day 1

May 6, 2013

by Jennifer Phillips, Ph.D.

Greetings from sunny Seattle, destination for this year’s ARVO meeting. I’m here all week, and I’ll be blogging on the very latest vision research going on around the world that has some relevance to Usher syndrome. 

Sunday highlights:

The meeting theme this year is “Life-Changing research”, which I expect will resonate with many of our readers. The first session I attended was entitled “From the Cell to Therapy: Transforming Vision and Life”, and the very first presentation in that session, by David Beebe from Washington University in St. Louis, dealt with a key stage of embryonic eye development during which the essential tissues and shape of the eye are established.

I write about a lot of retinal cell biology on this blog—lots of details about very specialized parts of very specialized cells performing miniscule functions that are critical to visual function. But before any of that can occur, before those cells reach the level of specialized function that nerds like me can rhapsodize about for hours (ok, years) on end, they are induced to develop from sheet of neural tissue that is virtually indistinguishable from surrounding neural tissues that are not fated to become eye, but instead will form parts of the brain. Remarkable cellular movements, orchestrated by molecular cues, cause some part of this sheet of unremarkable neural cells to bulge out on either side of the head, and then, when these bulges (known as optic vesicles) comes in contact with the layer of cells above—cells that in the fullness of time will become skin and other superficial-body covering parts, the optic vesicles collapse back on themselves and form a two-layered optic cup. The inside layer of the cup is destined to become the neural retina—photoreceptors, bipolar cells, ganglion cells, etc., while the outside layer will become the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE).

This developmental milestone has been observed and documented for over a century, and there are still new things to learn about it. In and of itself, it is a significant and wondrous thing, but it holds additional, personal significance for me:

 Way back in 19, I enrolled in my first Developmental Biology class. At that point in my education, I enjoyed biology as a subject, but hadn’t really settled on a career path. I thought I might go to Veterinary School, but the Animal Science classes I’d taken (consisting mainly of large animal husbandry, livestock judging, and pooping hogs) were making me question my fitness for that vocation. 

 Developmental biology grabbed my interest from day 1. Every lecture was inspiring and thought-provoking, largely because of the power of the genetics behind every developmental event was, at that time, just beginning to be illuminated. And then came the unit on eye development. I remember being simply awestruck by the process I described briefly above. I remember having dinner with my boyfriend (now my husband) and almost shrieking “THE EYES! THEY GROW RIGHT OUT OF YOUR BRAIN!!!!” in my enthusiastic recap of the day’s lecture.

 Developmental Biology kept knocking my socks off for the rest of the semester., but my destiny was clinched with the lesson on eye development. I decided then and there that this research—genetic eye research—was what I wanted to do with my life. By the end of the term, I had made arrangements to do an undergraduate research project in one of the labs. A few months after that, I was making a short list of graduate programs to which I wanted to apply—a list that included the University of Oregon. So, this morning, when I heard the latest spin on the old classic tale of how the fate of the eye is determined, it caused me to reflect a bit on how this very story once determined my own fate. “Life-Changing research”, indeed.

 The point of that story for the rest of the audience, by the way, was that studying how cells are induced to form an eye at the beginning of everything can help us understand what (genetic, molecular) factors are needed to regenerate eye cells, for example in stem cell populations cultivated to replace degenerated retinal neurons. The rest of the talks in this session continued this trend, taking examples of eye cell development, function, and the relative capabilities of our model organisms to regenerate damaged retinal cells, and applying this information to developing therapies to replace retinal cells lost to disease. 

 This first session was immediately followed by a session about Retinal Prostheses. There was an update on the Second Sight Argus II unit, which has gotten a lot of press as the “bionic eye” and has now been FDA approved for general use in the United States, beginning later this year, which is exciting news indeed. Most of the other talks dealt with an even more cutting edge prosthesis, still in preclinical testing, in which a tiny wafer-like device consisting of many individual photovoltaic cells is implanted in the retina and substitutes as the light sensing mechanism for the degenerated photoreceptors. Results on this are looking really good in rat models of retinal degeneration, so hopefully we’ll see some clinical trials in the near future. Both the PV system and the Argus II unit require additional hardware—cameras, image processing units,--in order to work. The take home message from this session is that the technology has arrived. From this point on, it’s just a matter of refinement and optimization. And Life-Changing.

 Thus ends Day 1 of ARVO 2013. Tune in tomorrow for the next recap. 

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