INTERVIEWER: What is your name, where are you from, and tell me about your research project.
MEREDITH GREGORY-KSANDER: My name is Meredith Gregory-Ksander. I am an assistant professor in ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, and my lab is in the Schepens Eye Research Institute at Mass. Eye and Ear in Boston. In my lab, we really had a focus on understanding the role of inflammation in age-related diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma, and we’re particularly focused on glaucoma. The exciting part is the eye is normally what we would call an immune-privileged site—a site where inflammation is actually tightly regulated. And so, if you think of inflammation as the body’s response to fight infections or heal after injury … that in the eye, this is tightly regulated to protect against infection and heal after wounds, but also preserve the delicate tissues, such as the retina and optic nerve that are critical for vision. We have determined that in glaucoma with age, these regulations on inflammation have been disrupted, and now this inflammation in the eye has become destructive. We have identified a pathway that mediates this inflammation, particularly in glaucoma that, through funds from BrightFocus, we’ve been able now to target and determine that it plays a pivotal role in the development of glaucoma.
INTERVIEWER: What do you hope your research is able to achieve?
MEREDITH GREGORY-KSANDER: Our focus is identifying new targets for developing new treatments in glaucoma. With the increasing aging population, the numbers of people suffering from glaucoma increase year after year, there are currently … there’s only one treatment, which is lowering the pressure in the eye, which is a risk factor in glaucoma. But many patients continue to progress. And so, our treatment we hope to bring or translate to the clinic is a new treatment that can directly protect the retinal ganglion cells and the optic nerve that is damaged in glaucoma.
INTERVIEWER: What inspired you to become a researcher?
MEREDITH GREGORY-KSANDER: Both of my parents were in medicine, and growing up I’ve always … I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested or excited about science, and I always think back to—I think it was 7th- or 8th-grade, a science fair that I was involved in. My friends were doing projects on teaching hamsters how to run a maze or growing mold on bread. I did a project on planaria, which is a flatworm that, if you cut it in half, it can regenerate its whole body, and I was just amazed [at] the ability of this seemingly simple worm that could regenerate its whole body. I remember the same excitement when I started working in the eye: this seemingly simple organ and the complexity in regulating vision, but also the complexity of the system involved in protecting the tissues necessary for vision and how those systems are disrupted in disease. And so I’ve been very passionate in trying to understand that and how we can treat that and prevent disease.
INTERVIEWER: What message would you like to share about the importance of scientific research?
MEREDITH GREGORY-KSANDER: Scientific research is really the nuts and bolts in understanding disease and developing new therapies. And in vision research—in particular, age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma, the two current therapies out there for those diseases came from basic scientific research. The more research that is done, the more we understand these diseases and can develop new and better treatments that can help even a greater number of patients, because these diseases are very complex. I know that the patients out there suffering from glaucoma … like I said, the current therapy for lowering eye pressure is not effective in all patients. So, we’re always looking for the next answer and the next better therapy that can target more patients.
INTERVIEWER: Would you like to say anything to our donors who might be watching this interview right now?
MEREDITH GREGORY-KSANDER: In particular to BrightFocus, these small foundations have really had a significant impact in supporting research—not only young investigators that are really going to be the new leaders in these fields, but also established investigators that have novel or potentially risky ideas that have the potential of a great impact on this disease that may not have the supporting data to get a federal-level grant—and foundations like BrightFocus have allowed these projects to really get off the ground. I’ve seen the results of many of these projects going on to additional funding and into clinical trials, which again, our project has been supported by BrightFocus. The grant is just about to end, and we’ve already started a new collaboration in developing a drug to target this pathway in hopes to translate this to the clinic.
INTERVIEWER: What excites you most about current trends around your area of research?
MEREDITH GREGORY-KSANDER: In glaucoma—this is kind of a theme—that the current treatment is on lowering pressure, and that’s really where the focus has been over the last several decades. And now the trend has switched to the idea of neuroprotection and how can we specifically treat and target the retinal ganglion cell and the optic nerve, which are the tissues that are damaged in glaucoma. And so there’s been a big push to understanding how these cells are being killed, independent of pressure, so that we can come up with a therapy that will treat, potentially, all patients irrespective of their pressure.
INTERVIEWER: What is something that people may not know about working as a researcher?
MEREDITH GREGORY-KSANDER: Working in research, in talking to my friends and relatives … research is stressful and you’re not always coming up with the answers every day, and I think that the one point to get across is that the successful researchers and the big papers and the announcements that you hear on the news don’t come from one study where they made a prediction and they were right. Actually, a lot of these come from the unexpected results, and that’s actually the most exciting part in research. You plan this experiment and you have a predictive result and you get something that’s unexpected. With young researchers that’s hard because they think, “Oh no, it didn’t work.” But for us, we say, “This is the exciting part. Now you have this unexpected finding—what does this mean?” And that, actually, is what leads to many of these new discoveries.
INTERVIEWER: How do you describe your technical research to your family and friends?
MEREDITH GREGORY-KSANDER: For our research, in particular, our focus on the role of inflammation and glaucoma, in talking to friends and family, particularly my Dad who has been diagnosed with glaucoma, is that I give them the visual of: you think of inflammation in the skin. If you get a wound in the skin and you have an inflammatory response and you heal the wound, you may get a scar. But the cut is closed and your skin is fine. But in the eye, that inflammation, if it’s not controlled—a scar in the eye is essentially tissues dying, such as retinal ganglion cells or the optic nerve, which is going to cause loss of vision. And so we’re trying to understand how we can block that inflammation and protect those tissues.
INTERVIEWER: Well, thank you, Dr. Ksander, for taking the time to speak with us today. To our viewers, this concludes our interviews for the day, and we will be taking you behind the scenes at an Evening of BrightFocus later this evening.* Thank you.
MEREDITH GREGORY-KSANDER: Thank you.
* Dr. Gregory-Ksander's interview was one of several Facebook Live interviews recorded on June 6, 2018.
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