TAG: "Eye care"

A clearer picture: Vision-correcting display could replace reading glasses


The technology has potential to help hundreds of millions of people.

What if computer screens had glasses instead of the people staring at the monitors? That concept is not too far afield from technology being developed by UC Berkeley computer and vision scientists.

The researchers are developing computer algorithms to compensate for an individual’s visual impairment, and creating vision-correcting displays that enable users to see text and images clearly without wearing eyeglasses or contact lenses. The technology could potentially help hundreds of millions of people who currently need corrective lenses to use their smartphones, tablets and computers. One common problem, for example, is presbyopia, a type of farsightedness in which the ability to focus on nearby objects is gradually diminished as the aging eyes’ lenses lose elasticity.

More importantly, the displays could one day aid people with more complex visual problems, known as high order aberrations, which cannot be corrected by eyeglasses, said Brian Barsky, UC Berkeley professor of computer science and vision science, and affiliate professor of optometry.

“We now live in a world where displays are ubiquitous, and being able to interact with displays is taken for granted,” said Barsky, who is leading this project. “People with higher order aberrations often have irregularities in the shape of the cornea, and this irregular shape makes it very difficult to have a contact lens that will fit. In some cases, this can be a barrier to holding certain jobs because many workers need to look at a screen as part of their work. This research could transform their lives, and I am passionate about that potential.”

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New compound treats both blindness and diabetes in animal studies


UCSF-led study offers fresh insights into role of cellular stress in degenerative illnesses.

In a new study led by UC San Francisco scientists, a chemical compound designed to precisely target part of a crucial cellular quality-control network provided significant protection, in rats and mice, against degenerative forms of blindness and diabetes.

In addition to opening a promising drug-development path for the wide range of diseases caused by cell loss, the new research offers a new view of the workings of the unfolded protein response (UPR), a cellular “life-or-death” signaling network: When cells are under stress, the UPR works to ensure that they produce properly configured proteins, but those cells not up to this task are quickly prompted by the UPR to self-destruct.

A component of the UPR known as the IRE1 pathway has generally been thought to handle the protective aspects of this response, promoting cell survival by providing cells with the biological resources they need to cope with stress, while a complementary pathway, called PERK, has been associated with cell death.

But in the new research, published in today’s (July 10) edition of Cell, when researchers used KIRA6, a small-molecule kinase inhibitor they designed to inhibit the actions of IRE1α — the molecular sensor that triggers the IRE1 pathway — they blocked cell death and preserved function in experimental models of two human diseases.

In two rat models of retinitis pigmentosa, a disease in which light-sensing cells in the eye progressively die off, causing blindness, KIRA6 preserved both the number of these cells and visual function. And in mice from a strain known as Akita, which carry a genetic mutation that causes diabetes in early life as stressed insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas degenerate, KIRA6 protected beta cells from cell death, leading to a twofold increase in insulin production and improving blood glucose control.

“This is a huge advance in our field,” said co-senior author Scott A. Oakes, M.D., associate professor of pathology at UCSF. “On the surface these would seem to be two very different diseases, but IRE1-induced cell death is at the root of both of them.”

The results are the culmination of “a gigantic project,” first to establish that the IRE1 pathway could drive degenerative disease, and then to design and test compounds to head off the damage, said UCSF’s Feroz Papa, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine and co-senior author, and a member of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences. “It took four years, over a hundred separate experiments in various contexts — not counting replications — and involved 24 researchers working in seven labs across four cities.”

KIRA6 is the latest in a series of compounds (the acronym stands for “Kinase-Inhibiting RNase Attenuators”) that were originally designed and synthesized in the labs of study co-authors Dustin J. Maly, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry at The University of Washington, Seattle, and Bradley J. Backes, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at UCSF.

“While KIRA6 showed efficacy in animals,” said Papa, “it is important to stress that more optimization through medicinal chemistry efforts is needed to develop this class of compounds to the stage where they could be tested for efficacy in humans through clinical trials.”

Oakes and Papa said that support from the Cleveland, Ohio-based Harrington Discovery Institute was crucial to sustaining this complex collaboration. Both scientists were 2013 winners of Scholar-Innovator Awards from the institute, which is part of The Harrington Project for Development and Discovery a $250 million national model to accelerate the development of medical breakthroughs by physician-scientists into medicines that benefit patients. Other critical support for the work came from the National Institutes of Health, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the American Cancer Society and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Other UCSF researchers on the project included Douglas B. Gould, Ph.D., associate professor of ophthalmology; Michael German, M.D., professor of medicine; postdoctoral fellows Rajarshi Ghosh, Ph.D., and Likun Wang, Ph.D., and graduate student Eric S. Wang, all co-first authors; postdoctoral fellows Aeid Igbaria, Ph.D., Shuhei Morita, M.D., Ph.D., Kris Prado, M.D., Maike Thamsen, Ph.D., Hector Macias, Ph.D., and Marcel V. Alavi, Ph.D.; former research associate Deborah Caswell; graduate student Kurt F. Weiberth; and research associate Micah J. Gliedt. The team was also joined by other colleagues from The University of Washington, Seattle; The Miller School of Medicine at The University of Miami, Florida; and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in Bronx, New York.

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Miniature eye telescope used to treat macular degeneration patients


Successful treatment highlights UC Irvine Health’s partnership with community.

Ophthalmologists at the new UC Irvine Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, a state-of-the-art eye center that opened last fall, recently implanted the first CentraSight miniature telescope at the new facility to treat advanced macular degeneration. It was the sixth such procedure performed by UC Irvine Health specialists since the FDA approved the implant in 2010.

In September 2013, Gavin Herbert Eye Institute opened its new home on the UC Irvine campus. The 70,000-square-foot building has 34 comfortable patient exam rooms, including an area specifically designed for pediatric care, the latest optical equipment, fully equipped outpatient surgical rooms and modern research labs.

“Macular degeneration damages the retina and causes a blind spot in the center of a person’s field of vision,” said Dr. Sumit “Sam” Garg, the institute’s medical director. “The telescope projects an image onto an undamaged portion of the retina, making it possible for patients to recognize faces, read and perform daily activities.”

Fullerton resident Stewart Roberts underwent the 45-minute procedure, in which the pea-sized CentraSight telescope implant is inserted through an incision made in the cornea.

Several weeks after the surgery, Roberts feels great and will soon start low-vision occupational therapy to retrain his brain to process the images seen through the device.

“I’m just so excited,” Roberts said. “This is going to make all the difference in the world.”

The 80-year old was referred to Gavin Herbert Eye Institute by Dr. Timothy You, a retina specialists at Orange County Retina.  Specialists at Orange County Retina, as well as UC Irvine Health retina experts Dr. Baruch Kuppermann and Dr. Stephanie Lu, can refer patients to cornea surgeons Garg and colleague Dr. Marjan Farid for the procedure.  Kuppermann conducted trials of the telescope at UC Irvine prior to its FDA approval. A similar partnership exists with eye care specialists in the Inland Empire counties of Riverside and San Bernardino.

Garg said the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute is a resource for community-based eye specialists who want to offer their patients access to treatment, expertise and technology that may only be found at a university medical center.

“We want to make this treatment available to as many people living with end-stage age-related macular degeneration as possible,” Garg said. “Working with retina and low-vision specialists across the region is a great way to reach more people who may be helped.”

Clinical trials demonstrated that the implant, in addition to improved vision, increases patients’ independence. It also aids social interaction by making visible the facial expressions of family and friends.

“Until now, there has been no mechanism, surgical or medical, to restore that central sight,” said Farid, the institute’s director of cornea, cataract and refractive surgery. “These patients are now experiencing a quality of life that they’ve not enjoyed in many years. My patient is seeing her son’s face for the first time in more than a decade.”

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved the miniature telescope in July 2010 for use in patients with irreversible end-stage macular degeneration. At least 15 million Americans are affected by some form of the disease. The cost for the telescope implant and visits associated with the associated treatment program are Medicare eligible.

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UC San Diego names Hildyard Chair for Diseases of the Eye


Glaucoma specialist Felipe Medeiros appointed inaugural holder of chair.

Felipe Medeiros, UC San Diego

Glaucoma specialist Felipe Medeiros, M.D., Ph.D., professor of clinical ophthalmology and medical director of the Hamilton Glaucoma Center at the UC San Diego Shiley Eye Center, has been named the inaugural holder of the Ben and Wanda Hildyard Chair for Diseases of the Eye. The chair is one of three established by a bequest from Ben and Wanda Hildyard to help UC San Diego School of Medicine recruit and retain top faculty members. The bequest provided endowment funds of more than $6 million to establish the three chairs.

“I am honored to be the first faculty member to hold the Hildyard Chair for Diseases of the Eye and am appreciative for the resources it provides to advance my work,” said Medeiros, whose research is focused on glaucoma, the second leading cause of blindness in the United States. “I have been very fortunate to be able to collaborate with an outstanding group of people and be part of a wonderfully supportive environment.”

Although there is no cure for glaucoma, early diagnosis and treatment of the disease can help preserve vision. The Hamilton Glaucoma Center at UC San Diego Shiley Eye Center, where Medeiros serves as medical director and director of visual function research, is a comprehensive clinical and research center that offers management programs for glaucoma through clinical trials and innovative medical and surgical therapies, including genetic testing and regenerative ophthalmology.

Medeiros’ interests encompass many different areas in glaucoma research, including identification of risk factors and development of new methods for diagnosis and management of the disease. He is the principal investigator on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to evaluate functional impairment in glaucoma. His laboratory is currently evaluating the impact of the disease on activities of daily living in patients with glaucoma, using techniques such as driving simulation and virtual reality. The results of his research have provided major contributions to the understanding of how glaucoma affects quality of life, how physicians can better determine risk and how to prevent patients from developing impairment from the disease.

“This endowed chair recognizes Dr. Medeiros for his transformative clinical and research contributions to ophthalmology,” said Robert N. Weinreb, M.D., chair of the department of ophthalmology and director of the Shiley Eye Center. “We are grateful to the Hildyards for their legacy of support, and for investing in the future of ophthalmology at Shiley Eye Center.”

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Simulator evaluates how eye diseases affect driving


Driving skills can be tested on conditions that would be too dangerous to test in reality.

The UC San Diego School of Medicine is the first ophthalmology department in the nation to feature a fully dedicated high-fidelity, highly realistic driving simulator for evaluating the effects of visual impairment on a person’s driving performance.

Located in the UC San Diego Shiley Eye Center’s new Visual Performance Laboratory, the simulator occupies an entire room. Drivers sit in an actual Ford Fusion cabin mounted on a motion platform and look out onto a realistic cityscape with road and traffic projected on large-screen panels covering a 180-degree field of view. The scenes interactively respond to the driver’s changes in direction and speed.

The car pitches, rolls and rumbles in response to acceleration, braking and road conditions. The three adjustable rear-view mirrors display images of what would be visible behind the vehicle.

Felipe A. Medeiros, M.D., Ph.D., professor of ophthalmology and the Ben and Wanda Hildyard Chair for Diseases of the Eye, and colleagues plan to use the simulator to investigate how eye diseases, such as glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration, alter a person’s visual performance and ability to drive well and safely.

Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness and visual impairment in the world, and it is believed that people with glaucoma are more likely to be involved in motor vehicle accidents.

“We know that standard visual acuity or visual field tests may not provide enough information to evaluate whether a person is capable of driving safely,” Medeiros said. “The driving simulator will allow us to assess visual performance in a realistic and demanding scenario, providing a much better evaluation of the impact of eye diseases on driving fitness.”

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Retired physician creates a legacy with endowed faculty chair


UC San Diego Shiley Eye Center establishes Hollander chair.

Dr. Trude Hollander with Dr. Don O. Kikkawa

The Department of Ophthalmology at the UC San Diego School of Medicine will establish a new endowed chair thanks to a legacy gift from Trude Kahn Hollander, M.D. A longtime friend of the UC San Diego Shiley Eye Center, which houses the department, Hollander has made arrangements in her estate plan to fund the Dr. Trude K. Hollander Endowed Chair. The endowment will support a faculty member in the Division of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

“We appreciate Dr. Hollander’s generosity for choosing the UC San Diego Shiley Eye Center to leave her lasting legacy toward our future growth, innovation and success,” said Robert N. Weinreb, M.D., director of the Shiley Eye Center.

Recognized internationally as a leader in patient care, teaching and research, the UC San Diego Division of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery has pioneered operations and techniques that have become the standard in the field of oculofacial plastic surgery — a specialty that focuses on disorders of the eyelids, orbits, face and lacrimal system. The establishment of the Dr. Trude K. Hollander Endowed Chair will help the division to attract and retain a leading faculty member in this specialty. At UC San Diego, endowed chairs created by philanthropic gifts provide chair holders with funding support for teaching and research. As endowments, these funds live on in perpetuity.

Hollander first became aware of the division’s work when she came to the Shiley Eye Center as a patient in the late 1990s. She got to know Don O. Kikkawa, M.D., chief of the Division of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, and they remained close friends.

“Dr. Don Kikkawa is and always has been the perfect example of a true physician who makes a difference,” said Hollander. “He has an extraordinary pair of hands and eyes which bring healing for the most complicated and rare eye conditions. He has been my idol from the moment I met him.”

Hollander completed her medical degree in Bonn, Germany, in 1936; she was one of four women to graduate in a class of 120. She left Germany before World War II to complete her internship at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, then moved to Massachusetts and became board certified in gynecology. She met her late husband, Alfred, a prominent dermatologist, while practicing in Springfield. Hollander enjoyed a 45-year career in medicine before the couple retired to San Diego in 1979. This year, she celebrated her 104th birthday.

“Trude is an extraordinary person,” said Kikkawa. “Her grace, beauty and generosity are unparalleled. I have been extremely blessed to be her friend and am so touched and grateful for her kindness.”

At UC San Diego, the Office of Gift Planning offers a variety of ways to make an impact and create a legacy on campus. From including a bequest in a will or living trust, to designating UC San Diego as a beneficiary of a retirement account, to making a gift of an appreciated security that will provide income for life, planned gifts can help individuals achieve financial as well as philanthropic goals. To learn more, visit giftplanning.ucsd.edu. For more information about the UC San Diego Shiley Eye Center, visit shileyeye.ucsd.edu.

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UC Davis, Orbis partner in telemedicine initiative


Alliance will work to treat, prevent blindness in the developing world.

Today, UC Davis Health System and Orbis International, a leading global non-governmental organization (NGO) that works to eliminate avoidable blindness, signed an agreement of cooperation that will expand the use of telemedicine technology to help treat and prevent blindness in the developing world.

The new alliance, which features the expertise of the UC Davis Center for Health and Technology and the UC Davis Eye Center, paves the way for developing new research, education and telehealth collaborations to advance vision science and eye care on a global scale.

The World Health Organization estimates that 285 million people are visually impaired worldwide. This includes 39 million individuals who are blind and 246 million who have low vision. About 90 percent of the world’s visually impaired live in developing countries, and 80 percent of all cases of visual impairment can be avoided or cured. These include refractive errors, cataracts and glaucoma, the leading causes of visual impairment worldwide.

Through the agreement, UC Davis specialists in telemedicine, information technology, ophthalmology, anesthesiology and nursing will work with Orbis on initiatives such as  staff development, fellowships and programs on the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital — a fully equipped mobile teaching hospital on board a DC-10 jet. Trainees will have opportunities for hands-on training in the UC Davis Center for Health and Technology simulation center and Orbis’s telehealth program for real-time surgical demonstrations.

“Orbis is honored to join in this agreement with the UC Davis Eye Center,” said Jenny Hourihan, president and chief executive officer of Orbis. “UC Davis is such an impressive partner and dedicated in helping to make quality eye health accessible while advancing programs and technology used in eye health worldwide. We are excited to collaborate and share tools and resources to expand the reach and influence that telehealth has in preventing and treating avoidable blindness.”

The project includes establishing telehealth links that will transmit live broadcasts of eye surgeries at UC Davis to virtual classrooms in remote regions in the developing world with the opportunity for trainees thousands of miles away to ask questions of surgeons in real time. It also will explore live e-consultations with partners around the world and further Orbis’s ongoing efforts to establish an open-source ophthalmic electronic medical record system, which will help develop a more robust e-health infrastructure, provide access to increased decision-making support and offer researchers a wealth of global data.

“Advances in telecommunications technologies and broadband capacity in developing countries has created new opportunities to improve training for physicians, nurses and other members of the health care team and expanded access to health care services among the world’s most vulnerable populations,” said Thomas Nesbitt, associate vice chancellor for strategic technologies and alliances at UC Davis. “By partnering with Orbis, a recognized pioneer in establishing sustainable, quality eye health care worldwide, we are leveraging UC Davis’ expertise in telehealth and distance learning to have a profound impact on global health.”

Orbis works to bring quality eye care to communities by building capacity with local partners to develop infrastructure, trained staff and, ultimately, sustainable eye care services. Since 1982, Orbis has carried out programs in 92 countries, enhanced the skills of more than 325,000 eye care professionals, and provided medical and optical treatments to more than 23.3 million adults and children. Since 2006, nearly 20 UC Davis faculty and staff have participated in 14 medical missions, traveling to China, Vietnam, Peru, Indonesia, India, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Zambia and Panama.

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Saving diabetics from blindness in Libya


UC Berkeley grad student, professor, alum join forces in international public service project.

UC Berkeley optometry student Fatima Elkabti and professor Jorge Cuadros discuss a magnified digital image of a healthy retina.

A UC Berkeley graduate student in optometry, one of her professors and a Berkeley alumnus have joined forces to build a long-distance diagnostic project that has the potential to keep a large number of people in crisis-torn Libya from going blind.

The public service project involves training Libyan doctors to take detailed digital photographs inside patients’ eyes, of their retinas, as part of routine health care and put the images online for remote diagnosis of damage caused by diabetes before it’s too late. Too often, diabetes-related retinopathy isn’t caught until it causes symptoms, when treatment can no longer save vision.

The first 11 Libyan doctors underwent training for three days in February in Istanbul, in a seminar organized by the Avicenna Group and taught by Berkeley optometry professor Jorge Cuadros. Turkey was chosen as the training site for security reasons and because it is easily accessible from Libya.

If all goes according to plan, many more doctors will be trained over the next year, both in Libya and out — all because of a project that developed rapidly from a seed planted in a Diabetic Health Clinic class in Berkeley’s School of Optometry.

In the class, Cuadros taught students how to analyze photos of diabetic retinopathy as part of EyePACS, the California-based online initiative he co-founded to train people working in diabetes care to screen patients’ vision for remote diagnosis by certified eye doctors.

In his class was third-year optometry student Fatima Elkabti, who knows firsthand the toll that diabetes is taking in Libya, where the disease is rampant but greatly underdiagnosed. Elkabti’s father, a Libyan, has diabetes, as do about half of her many aunts and uncles.

“I walked out of the class and asked Dr. Cuadros, ‘Can we do this in Libya?’ “ Elkabti relates. Do some research, the professor told her.

Elkabti got to work and within an hour found Ethan Chorin, who earned his Ph.D. at Berkeley in 2000, served in the U.S. diplomatic corps in Libya from 2004 to 2006 and has published a book about the recent Libyan revolution. He founded the not-for-profit Avicenna Group in 2011 with a Libyan-American colleague to catalyze health-related partnerships between Libyan organizations and U.S. universities. Traveling back and forth between Benghazi and Berkeley, he looked for ways to involve Berkeley in Libya’s reconstruction efforts.

“I shot Ethan an email, and within hours we were talking about how to make this happen,” Elkabti says. The Berkeley-Libya retinopathy project was off and running.

Diabetes-related retinopathy is one of the leading causes of blindness in Libya — as well as in the United States and in much of the world. EyePACS has brought retinal screenings to poor and medically underserved areas from California’s Central Valley to Peru, and the Libyan retinopathy project extends the concept to politically unstable and dangerous regions.

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$6.5M gift establishes UC San Diego lab for regenerative ophthalmology


New lab at Shiley Eye Center will investigate advances to reverse vision loss, blindness.

A $6.5 million gift from a grateful patient will create the Richard C. Atkinson Laboratory for Regenerative Ophthalmology in the department of ophthalmology at the UC San Diego Shiley Eye Center. The new lab will investigate cell replacement therapies, tissue engineering and other biomedical advances to reverse vision loss and blindness. Work conducted at the lab will utilize novel stem cell approaches that are consistent with the vision of the newly created Sanford Clinical Stem Cell Center at UC San Diego, which was announced in late 2013.

“This significant gift will provide UC San Diego the foundation for innovation as researchers at the Shiley Eye Center employ a multidisciplinary approach that integrates ophthalmology, vision research, bioengineering, neurosciences and stem cell biology,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla.

The donor chose to name the laboratory in honor of Richard Atkinson, former University of California president and UC San Diego chancellor, for his lasting impact not only on UC San Diego, but also on the entire UC system. A professor emeritus of cognitive science and psychology, Atkinson served as president of the UC system from 1995 to 2003. Before becoming president, he served for 15 years as chancellor of UC San Diego. He is a former director of the National Science Foundation.

The UC San Diego department of ophthalmology at the Shiley Eye Center is the only academic eye center in the region offering the most advanced treatments across all areas of eye care. World-class clinicians, surgeons, scientists and staff are dedicated to excellence and providing the best possible patient care to prevent, treat and cure eye diseases. The center’s research is at the forefront of developing new methods for diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases and disorders.

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The future of ophthalmology


New UC Davis facility advances the skills of eye surgeons.

Medical students and residents in the new ophthalmology training lab are able refine their surgical skills for procedures that require the use of high-powered microscopes.

The UC Davis Eye Center has opened a new state-of-the-art facility for teaching microsurgery techniques to the next generation of surgeons. Called the Lanie Albrecht Foundation Microsurgical Training Laboratory, the facility allows medical students and residents in ophthalmology and other specialties – including neurosurgery, orthopaedics, plastic surgery and veterinary medicine – to finesse their skills at performing surgeries that require the use of high-powered microscopes.

“This lab is all about enhancing the quality of patient care,” said Thomas Nesbitt, associate vice chancellor for strategic technologies and alliances at UC Davis.

“By establishing this technology-enabled learning environment, our medical residents can further refine their skills before entering the operating room.”

Funded entirely through a generous gift from the Lanie Albrecht Foundation, the new facility has seven fully equipped learning stations that ophthalmology residents can use to practice procedures such as corneal and retinal surgeries, cataract surgery and restorative oculoplastic surgery using grapes or animal eyes. Their work can be projected onto a high-resolution screen so faculty physicians can guide the process. Training sessions also can be recorded for analysis or to track milestones in each trainee’s progress.

“Practice in a controlled environment is a crucial part of becoming a skilled surgeon, and the new lab makes that possible,” said ophthalmology resident Natasha Kye.

“Residents have always gained high quality surgical training at UC Davis,” added Mark Mannis, chair of the Department of Ophthalmology. “But this wonderful new facility enables us to nurture the next generation of surgeons at a whole new level.”

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Venus flytraps, venom and vision


UC Irvine chemist’s offbeat interests have led to a potentially eyesight-saving discovery.

UC Irvine chemist Rachel Martin holds the eyepiece of a telescope she built. (Photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine)

UC Irvine chemist Rachel Martin holds the eyepiece of a telescope she built.

Rachel Martin is a thoughtful, reserved UC Irvine chemist who happens to love venom, carnivorous plants and telescopes. The last offers a clue to her latest research, which could lead to a breakthrough in treatments for epidemic blindness due to cataracts.

“I’ve been interested in optics since I was a graduate student,” she says, pulling a beautiful, hand-carved brass telescope from a box on a shelf above her desk. It’s engraved with a Leonardo da Vinci motto, “saper vedere,” which means “knowing how to see.” That was her mechanical instrumentation instructor’s motto, and she made the scope herself as a diversion from long nights earning her Ph.D. at Yale University.

Martin and her own students recently snared the December cover of the journal Structure with their trailblazing findings on how cataracts form at the molecular level. They discovered that so-called “chaperone” proteins grab onto mutant crystallin proteins in our eyes and hang on for dear life, stopping them from clumping together.

The problem is that human eyes have a finite number of these valuable chaperones. Once they’re used up, the mutant or damaged proteins begin to aggregate and cloud our vision. Now that her group has exposed the nuts and bolts of cataract creation and prevention, Martin is hopeful that organic chemists can latch onto the work and replicate the chaperone process via medicated eye solutions or artificial lenses.

“That’s the dream, and this is a big step,” says the associate professor of chemistry. “Understanding the molecular mechanism of what goes wrong in the eye that causes a cataract could lead to the development of better treatment options.”

Martin, 37, arrived at UC Irvine in 2005 to set up her own laboratory. Her husband, Carter Butts, is a UC Irvine sociology professor. A native of Phoenix, she loves California. “I like being near the ocean,” she says, “and I like the culture and the people.”

Studying cataracts was part of her job search proposal; despite her own fine eyesight, she’s keenly aware of global blindness. Nearly 20 million people worldwide have lost their sight due to cataracts. While individuals with proper medical care can have corrective surgery, the World Health Organization has found that millions in China, India, Southeast Asia, Eastern Mediterranean nations and elsewhere suffer major vision loss because they don’t have access to laser surgery or other options.

The medical potential is a powerful motivator, but Martin says it was pure chemistry – in this case a keen interest in how transparency works – that led her to investigate eye lenses. “Most things are not transparent; this is a really unusual property,” she notes.

But Martin became a chemist for different reasons. “I was absolutely fascinated by venom,” she says. “I grew up catching scorpions and centipedes and things like that.”

An “awesome” high school chemistry teacher set her on her career path, and she studies venom – as well as cataracts – to this day.

Martin is quick to praise two of her group members for working especially long hours and making major contributions to the latest findings: Carolyn Kingsley and William Brubaker. Her students also make their own precise research instruments – one of the reasons she wins praise from others.

“The remarkable thing about professor Martin’s work is that she combines the most advanced techniques in molecular biology and instrument-based chemical physics in the same lab,” says Kenneth Janda, dean of the School of Physical Sciences and a fellow chemist. “She’s remarkably broad in her talent, and her students have a unique opportunity to work in two disciplines for the same project.”

Her group is continuing the research on cataract proteins. “The next phase is to understand more about the alpha crystallin – the chaperone protein that clings onto the damaged crystallin,” Martin says.

These days, in addition to poring over data, she breeds rare plants – particularly protein-hungry ones such as Venus flytraps. With their delicate white flowers, they may be prettier than scorpions, but they share the same appetite.

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Chemists crack code of cataract creation


Findings by UC Irvine, German researchers could aid in saving sight of millions.

Cover of Structure magazineGroundbreaking new findings by UC Irvine and German chemists about how cataracts form could be used to help prevent the world’s leading cause of blindness, which currently affects nearly 20 million people worldwide.  (PDF)

“That’s the dream, and this is a big step,” said Rachel Martin, UC Irvine associate professor of chemistry and co-author of a paper featured on the December cover of the journal Structure. “Understanding the molecular mechanism of what goes wrong in the eye that leads to a cataract could lead to the development of better treatment options, including more sophisticated artificial lenses and drugs.”

It has long been known that human eyes have a powerful ability to focus because of three kinds of crystallin proteins in their lenses, maintaining transparency via a delicate balance of both repelling and attracting light. Two types of crystallin are structural, but the third – dubbed a “chaperone” – keeps the others from clumping into cataracts if they’re modified by genetic mutation, ultraviolet light or chemical damage.

The UC Irvine team painstakingly explored and identified the structures of the normal proteins and a genetic mutation known to cause cataracts in young children. They found that the chaperone proteins bind far more strongly to the mutated proteins in an effort to keep the lens clear. One major problem: Every human eye contains a finite number of the helpful proteins. Once they’re used up, the researchers learned, weakened ones quickly begin to aggregate and form blinding cataracts.

Now that this mechanism has been mapped at the molecular level, the team is hopeful that organic chemists can create sight-saving treatments to prevent such aggregation.

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