A Washington University retina specialist is one of 10 U.S. scientists selected by the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for innovative projects to improve or restore vision.
The winning proposal from Rajesh C. Rao, MD, a vitreoretinal surgery fellow in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, was chosen from nearly 500 entries. Rao was one of two retina clinicians to receive the award and the youngest winner in the national competition.
His proposal involves restoring vision in patients whose retinas have deteriorated from diseases like age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in adults.
Rao wants to reprogram skin and blood cells from patients because they can be easy to isolate and are compatible with the immune system. Once reprogrammed, those cells could be transplanted into the retina, the structure at the back of the eye that converts light into vision.
“We want to use gene therapy and other techniques to repair the damage that occurs in degenerative retinal diseases,” says Rao. “By identifying the small molecules that directly convert a mature cell into a retinal cell, we hope to reprogram cells that already exist in the body to make them useful in preserving or restoring vision.”