Robust Optic Nerve Regeneration: A Systems Biology Approach
Recent studies have demonstrated that the adult optic nerve is capable of true axonal regeneration in the mouse. For this regeneration to be applicable to humans, the regenerating axons must travel a considerably longer distance. Our group has developed a mouse model system that will allow us to identify genes that will increase the number of regenerating axons by at least four times and the distance the axons grow by at least three times. If functional recovery is to occur in humans we must increase the number of regenerating axons and their rate of growth.
The first part of our study will be directed at identifying the parts of the genome (DNA) that affect the number and rate of growth of regenerating axons. The second part will be to identify the specific genes involved. Finally, we will use gene modification to test the therapeutic benefit of modifying specific genes. If we are able to increase the amount of regeneration and the rate of regrowth backing the brain, the regeneration we observe in the mouse may be directly transferable to humans.
About the Researcher
As a pre-med undergraduate at the University of California Irvine, I enjoyed a course in neurobiology. Little did I know that that one course would alter the direction of my life forever. During that course, a spark ignited a burning passion to understand the response of the nervous system to injury, with the hope that it could be modified to facilitate the repair and restore function. The pathway of discovery has traversed chemistry as an undergraduate student, neuroanatomy as a graduate student, neurophysiology as a postdoctoral fellow and as a faculty member, cell biology, genetics and now genomics. Recently my group has brought all of these disciplines to bear on the study of optic nerve regeneration. We are identifying regions of DNA that directly modify the ability of injured neurons to regenerate down the optic nerve to the brain. With funding from the BrightFocus Foundation, we hope to identify specific genes that can be modified to facilitate the regrowth of damaged axons to the brain and restore vision. This is an exciting time for people working on optic nerve regeneration for real progress is being made.
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, I worked in the laboratories of Gary Lynch and Carl Cotman. Dr. Lynch and Dr. Cotman were two young faculty members working on “plasticity” in the central nervous system. They were showing that the adult brain could change, it was not hard wired. As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I was fortunate to be in the laboratory or R.W. Guillery FRS. He was a true mentor teaching me not only how to write but how to think and how to approach science. His story is one chapter in the book series “The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography” (Volume 2 pages 132-167). Ray gave me the guidance and the freedom to develop a new technique to prove that a single neuron in the lateral geniculate nucleus (part of the brain that receives input from the retina) could project to two different cortical regions by an axon which branches. My first faculty position was at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. This work continued into my second faculty position at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, where I took a position in Anatomy and Neurobiology. Eventually, I was asked by Dr. Barrett Haik, chairman of Ophthalmology to became director of the Vision Research Center taking on a significant administrative and fund-raising role. My research also expanded to include a systems biology approach to understanding genetic networks in the retina and the response of these networks following injury. With Rob Williams our laboratories developed a novel genomic approach to examine genetic networks activated by injury in the eye. Currently, I am a Professor of Ophthalmology at Emory Eye Center, enjoying the rich academic environment along with a wonderful group of highly collaborative colleagues.
First published on: July 3, 2019
Last modified on: July 3, 2019