Researcher Update: An Interview with Dr. David Gamm

April 25, 2017

Dr. David GammA Profile of Progress in the  Fight Against Vision Loss

David Gamm, MD, PhD
Director, University of Wisconsin
McPherson Eye Research Institute
Associate Professor, Dept. of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences

Our stem-cell-derived therapy offers the potential to restore vision by replacing the missing or malfunctioning photoreceptor cells and support cells with healthy retinal cells. We are making astonishing progress and are on the right track.

It’s important for the Foundation Fighting Blindness to have a portfolio of research that addresses all areas of vision loss — prevention, stabilization, and vision improvement.

Improvement occurs along a spectrum — from small to substantial, with the ultimate goal of restoring meaningful visual function by reestablishing the circuitry and connections that were present to begin with using new, healthy, and “real” donor retinal cells.

Stem-cell technology has that capacity.

Image of the the retinaThe retina is the light sensitive tissue at the back of the eye — the outer most portion consists of two key types of cells: photoreceptor cells that capture light and convert it into electrical signals and support cells (called RPE cells) that provide nutrition and waste management for photoreceptors.

Vison loss occurs when the photoreceptor cells die from direct disease or injury or indirect damage from problems arising from the support cells.

When we talk about retinal degeneration, it’s also a continuum. With some conditions, retinal cells are damaged, but some remain that can function. Other conditions can progress to the point where the key retinal cells have died completely.

If we think of the eye like a car engine, envision a disease where the pistons degrade. We would have to find a way to make new pistons, put them back into the engine, and get them working again.

Stem cells have the potential to become any type of cell in the body and thus offer create potential (and unlimited) source of new retinal cells to replace what’s missing.

Just in the past 10 years, we’ve successfully learned how to take stem cells genetically reprogrammed from a blood sample (known as iPS cells) and develop them into authentic, healthy retinal cells.

Our lab has played a key role in devising a stem-cell-derived therapy that includes photoreceptors alone or, eventually, photoreceptors along with the support cells needed to restore vision.

But, just because we’ve developed these cells doesn’t mean we can simply hook them up and make them function within the retina. These are the challenging steps we are now working on.

While there is still work to be done to verify and refine this process, we and others supported by FFB have made encouraging progress, and we are on the right track.

The Foundation Fighting Blindness was one of the earliest supporters of my work. And since they provide a substantial level of funding, we are able to design and pursue complete ambitious projects. This in turn often leads to additional funds from other sources and even greater progress.

One such “additional source” comes from investment from the commercial sector, which is hastening and refining our efforts and moving us closer to clinical trials.

What’s especially exciting about this research is that it may not only help patients with vision loss, but may also set a path for groups looking to combat other diseases that affect neurons, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Our lab has played a key role in devising a stem-cell-derived therapy that includes photoreceptors alone or, eventually, photoreceptors along with the support cells needed to restore vision.

– David Gamm, MD, PhD