MY RESEARCH ON THE EYE BEGAN IN 1965, while I was a graduate student at UCLA . One objective of my research is to understand interactions that take place among three cell types in the retina – the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE ) and the rod and cone photoreceptors. Rods are responsible for dim-light vision, and cones give us color vision. The RPE provides the photoreceptors with nutrients necessary for their daily survival, including a derivative of vitamin A essential for light detection. The RPE also removes waste products produced by the active rods and cones. Due to gene mutations, these critical processes malfunction, and patients become partially sighted or blind.
Highlight of the project so far and its effect
EARLY IN MY CAREER AT UCLA, with Professor Richard Young and colleague Michael Hall, we discovered how healthy RPE maintains photoreceptor cells in a healthy state over the course of a human lifetime. It does so by tending to the needs of the photoreceptors, which includes taking out and disposing of the garbage that they produce on a daily basis. Without this nurture, the photoreceptor cells die. A second, highly satisfactory experience much later in my career involved the discovery, through gene disruption in mice, that the absence of a single protein renders mice incapable of detecting light with their photoreceptor cells. We now know that this protein is the enzyme that converts vitamin A into its light-sensitive form. A similar disease exists in children who are born without the ability to see (Leber congenital amaurosis). This finding led to the development of a gene therapy for children who, born without vision, can now see.
Immediate and future steps for the project
MY CURRENT WORK IS FOCUSED ON UNDERSTANDING the causes and treatment of age-related macular degeneration. By virtue of the discovery by others of important disease-causing genes for this condition, we now have a rational avenue for future clarification and therapies. I collaborate with colleagues at UCLA , the University of Utah, UC Santa Barbara, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Florida at Gainesville.
Sentiments on conducting research at UCLA
UCLA PROVIDES A VERY FRIENDLY AND SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT for junior and senior scientists. Its intellectual and material resources are vast, and, because of these attributes, I have never seriously considered relocating to another university, in spite of multiple opportunities.
Best way to reach me with follow-up questions: [email protected].