The National Eye Institute funds Dr. David Pepperberg’s new investigation

David Pepperberg, PhD

Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary vision scientist David Pepperberg, PhD, received a new grant from the National Eye Institute to construct and test a novel light-sensitive molecular device that may help restore vision lost in degenerative eye diseases such as macular degeneration.

The two-year research project, “Nanoparticle-based Photo-activator of Voltage-gated Sodium Channels,” will support development and testing of the device in nerve cell preparations including isolated cells obtained from rat retinas.

“Even after retinal diseases kill rod and cone photoreceptors — the cells of the retina that take in light — other retinal cells often remain healthy,” said Dr. Pepperberg, the Searls-Schenk Professor of Ophthalmology at the UIC College of Medicine and principal investigator on the project.

“These non-photoreceptor cells remain physiologically capable of processing electrical and chemical signals, as in the normal retina, but in the absence of functioning rods and cones, they lack light-responsive input signals,” Dr. Pepperberg said. “We are working to create light-sensitive devices of nanoscale dimensions that can interact with specific proteins of the remaining healthy cells and bypass the deteriorated cells.”

According to Dr. Pepperberg, success in this early work and in future studies that test the technology in animal experiments could lead to a new type of molecular therapy for macular degeneration and related photoreceptor degenerative diseases.  Macular degeneration is a leading cause of vision loss for people ages 50 and older.

Co-investigators on the project are Karol Bruzik, PhD, professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy, UIC College of Pharmacy, and University of Chicago professors Francisco Bezanilla, PhD, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Stephen B. H. Kent, PhD, Department of Chemistry.

The experiments of the new project are distinct from, but relate closely to, those from a study that Dr. Pepperberg and his colleagues at UIC, UCLA and the National Eye Institute published in the October 2012 issue of the journal Nature Communications. Both address the overall goal of engineering devices to establish light-sensitivity and vision in patients with photoreceptor degenerative diseases. Dr. Pepperberg and his colleagues envision that ultimate therapeutic treatments may involve combinations of the molecular structures from both studies.