David Pepperberg, professor of ophthalmology in the UIC College of Medicine, together with Louis Hersh, professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry at the University of Kentucky, have received a two-year, $120,000 grant from the BrightFocus Foundation to develop and test a new approach to the treatment of macular degeneration.
The disease is a leading cause of vision loss in older individuals and has been estimated to affect approximately 15 million Americans. It causes damage to the light-sensitive photoreceptor cells of the macula, a small spot near the center of the retina and the part of the eye needed for sharp, central vision, which lets us see objects that are straight ahead.
What causes macular degeneration?
Macular degeneration is not a disease that has a single cause – it is multi-factorial. It can progress to different extents, and has genetic associations. There are also environmental factors that have been linked to macular degeneration, including smoking. Heavy smokers have a decidedly increased risk of developing macular degeneration in their lifetimes. There is also some research that suggests that amyloid-beta, a neurotoxic protein that has been implicated as one of the main drivers of Alzheimer’s disease, may also play a role in macular degeneration.
What are the symptoms of macular degeneration?
Imagine if in the center of your field of vision, there were a sort of gray smudge covering the area that you’re looking at, and you can’t move your eye away, because the smudge moves too. This is an oversimplified way of describing the experience of people with macular degeneration. It’s so devastating because the center of your field of vision is what you use for facial recognition, driving and reading.
There are two forms of macular degeneration - dry and wet. Dry is the most common and occurs when the light-sensitive cells in the retina die. The wet form is more severe, and it includes the abnormal growth of tiny blood vessels in the back of the eye that leak blood and fluid into the eye which further diminishes visual perception. The wet form develops from the dry form.
Can you describe the research that the BrightFocus Foundation grant will help support?
My research, which is in collaboration with Louis Hersh at the University of Kentucky, focuses on a molecule called amyloid-beta. There is a huge amount of literature addressing the roles of amyloid-beta in the development in brain degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s. There is a much smaller, but increasing literature and research effort in vision that is testing the possibility that amyloid-beta also may also have a role in the development of degenerative retinal disease like macular degeneration.
The thinking is that an excess buildup of amyloid-beta, due to either an abnormal overproduction or deficient clearance of it, is damaging in one or more respects to the neural tissue that makes up the retina.
We are developing technology that can hopefully reduce the excessive buildup of amyloid-beta in the eye tissues by introducing a type of enzyme that degrades amyloid-beta. We are investigating two ways to deliver the enzyme to the retinal tissue in mice.
The first is through intravitreous injection. The vitreous is the large fluid compartment that fills the globe of the eye and maintains its structure and serves multiple purposes. Intravitreous injection of drugs for eye disease is a widely used technique in ophthalmology.
We will look at different amounts and frequencies of injection of a fluid containing the enzyme and analyze the effects on amyloid-beta in the retina at defined times after treatment and assess changes in vision in the mice.
The second delivery mechanism introduces the enzyme to the eye using a gene therapy approach. A viral particle that has been rendered nontoxic is used to encapsulate the gene that makes the enzyme, and the viral particles that contain the gene are added to a small volume of fluid that is then intravitreously injected into the eye. The idea is that the virus reaches its target cells and delivers the gene, allowing the cell to express the enzyme itself.
The retina is our target, but right now, we don’t yet know to what extent it will be important to target a particular class of cells in the retina versus having a more general targeting. That’s one of the things we will be looking at.
Ideally, the gene therapy would be a one-time only procedure, but that remains to be seen. It’s not guaranteed that a single treatment will last forever because of cell turnover and other issues, but the concept is that you introduce the gene and it resides in its target cells from that time forward making its gene product, which is, in our case, the enzyme that degrades amyloid-beta.
UIC Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares accepted a donation on behalf of the University of Illinois at Chicago from Face the Future Foundation president Mike Judge to support patient services at UIC’s Craniofacial Center.
The Face the Future Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to raise funds to help expand access to medical care for children in the Chicagoland area with craniofacial conditions, has supported UIC’s Craniofacial Center for several years. The Center is dedicated to the evaluation and treatment of infants, children, adolescents and adults with craniofacial conditions.
“We are grateful for the continued support of the Face the Future Foundation, whose dedication and efforts have helped assure that all patients at UIC’s Craniofacial Center receive the highly-specialized treatment they need, regardless of ability to pay,” said Allen-Meares.
The funding will be used to provide patient care and treatments that are not covered or only partially covered by insurance.
“More than 75 percent of our patients have limited insurance coverage, and many of the services needed by our patients are not covered, or partially covered by insurance,” said Dr. Mimis Cohen, chief of plastic, reconstructive and cosmetic surgery in the UIC College of Medicine and director of the UIC Craniofacial Center. “The funds provided by the Face the Future Foundation over the years have allowed us to provide all our patients with the highest standard of care.”
The Craniofacial Center sees approximately 500 new patients each year and has more than 5,000 current, active patients.
The Face the Future Foundation also hosts an annual holiday party at UIC for patients of the Craniofacial Center and their families. Their fund raising events include an annual gala as well as other events that support treatment of patients with craniofacial issues, and for the purchase of equipment necessary for state-of-the-art patient care.
The UIC Craniofacial Center, which celebrates its 65th anniversary this year, is one of the oldest and largest such centers in the world. Its comprehensive approach to caring for patients brings together the expertise of surgeons, dental specialists, psychologists, speech pathologists, ophthalmologists, audiologists, anaplastologists and other allied health care professionals in a single, patient-friendly environment.
In addition to evaluating and treating patients with craniofacial issues, the center also provides rehabilitation for those with head and neck cancer or who have suffered craniofacial trauma. The center employs advanced surgical planning technology that incorporates 3-dimensional visualization and modeling. Its anaplastology laboratory produces facial prosthesis and its audiology and speech laboratories have equipment for the evaluation and treatment of speech and hearing disorders common to patients with cleft lip and palate and other craniofacial conditions.
Banning vending machines from schools can actually increase soda and fast food consumption among students if it’s the only school food policy change implemented, according to research conducted at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The study, published online in the journal PLOS ONE, looked exclusively at regular soda consumption – not diet soda or other sugar sweetened beverages – and fast food.
The study included 8,245 high school students in 27 states. The study linked student data from the National Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Study with state-level data on soda taxes, restaurant taxes, and laws governing the sale of soda in schools in 2010.
The researchers found that 23 percent of students reported drinking at least one soda per day if they had access to vending machines in schools, compared to 28 percent of students who did not have access. However, these differences were only observed in states where soda was taxed less or students were able to buy soda from the school cafeteria or the school store.
The study also found that students eat more fast food when vending machines are removed, particularly when state sales tax rates for restaurant foods are lower, according to the authors. Read more
The University of Illinois joins a coalition of university, scientific and business organizations today urging Congress and President Obama to ensure that the U.S. remains a leader in innovation by increasing federal investments in research.
The innovation deficit — the widening gap between actual and needed federal investments in research and higher education — continues to increase in the U.S., while other nations such as China, India and Singapore dramatically boost research funding to develop technological and medical breakthroughs to move their economies forward.
One year ago today, UIC Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares added her name to an open letter to President Obama and Congress signed by more than 200 university officials, urging them to take action against the innovation deficit. Progress has been made, the coalition says, but more needs to be done. Read more