National Glaucoma Research
Richard K. Lee, M.D., Ph.D.
Bascom Palmer Eye Institute
Title: Optogenetic Stimulation for Axonal Regeneration
Non-Technical Title: Stimulation of the Retina to Re-Grow Axons that Allow Eye Cells to Make Connections to the Brain to Allow for Vision Recovery
Duration: July 1, 2013 - June 30, 2015
Award Type: Standard
Award Amount: $100,000
Glaucoma is an eye disease that is associated with damage to retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) and the connections of these cells to the brain that allow for vision. Using a method to specifically stimulate damaged RGCs, Dr. Lee’s team has forced these cells to regrow new connections toward the brain after damage. The goal of the team is to use this new method of stimulation to prevent RGCs from losing these brain connections by allowing them to maintain these brain connections and, therefore, preserve vision.
Nerve cells that die in the eye due to glaucoma normally do not regrow, resulting in irreversible blindness. This research project uses new molecular genetic approaches to force dying nerve cells to grow new nerve connections.
Glaucoma is associated with the permanent loss of nerve cells in the eye which allow for vision. One of the first signs of glaucoma is the loss of the connections from eye nerve cells to the areas of the brain responsible for vision. This project identifies the time course and pattern of nerve connection loss and uses a novel method to force regrowth of new nerve connections that could lead to recovery of vision.
Using newly developed, cutting edge technologies, Dr. Lee’s team was able to image the nerve connections in the eyes of animals with acute injury to the nerve cells in the retina. This imaging technique is a modified version of the optical coherence tomography (OCT) technology that is currently being used on the human eye for clinical quantification of nerve tissue in the clinic. In addition, the team genetically engineered animal nerve cells that can be directly imaged in the live animal and followed over the time in a manner that is not possible in the human eye, but which provides important information to correlate nerve cell loss with nerve connection (axon) loss.
Dr. Lee’s team is using a newly developed genetic stimulation model to force the growth of nerve connections from injured nerve cells in the live animal model. By understanding the natural time course of vision loss in this acute nerve injury model of glaucoma, the team could follow treatment interventions in the same animal over time in a manner not possible in the past. This combination of genetic and technological innovation has not been used in the past and forms a powerful new platform through which Dr. Lee’s team will identify and test multiple types of treatments to protect nerves and nerve connections from degenerating due to glaucoma.
Dr. Richard K. Lee, M.D., Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute (BPEI) with appointments in the Department of Cell Biology and the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Dr. Lee is trained as a Ph.D. laboratory scientist and as a fellowship trained glaucoma specialist at BPEI. His clinical work focuses on advanced imaging technologies for the study of human glaucoma and medical and surgical outcomes of glaucoma treatments. Dr. Lee's laboratory focuses on the use of non-invasive imaging of animal eyes to study glaucoma in a manner similar to what is done for human eyes with glaucoma, but also using animal glaucoma models to study the pathophysiology of glaucoma using molecular and cellular methods not possible in human eyes. By understanding the disease process for glaucoma, the Lee laboratory is identifying biomarkers for glaucomatous disease and identifying key pathways which cause glaucoma which will provide avenues for new treatments for glaucoma. Dr. Lee has a significant interest in community and international ophthalmology and has worked in many countries training ophthalmologists and providing care in developing countries. He is well published and the recipient of many awards including the American Academy of Ophthalmology's Secretariat Award, the Pan-American Association of Ophthalmology Benjamin F. Boyd Humanitarian Award, the Florida Hospital Association's Volunteer of the Year Award, and the American Glaucoma Society's Clinician Scientist Award and Mid-Career Physician Scientist Award. Dr. Lee is also a member of the BPEI teaching faculty and is the Glaucoma Fellowship Director and recipient of an Excellence in Teaching Award.