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Upstate researcher lands $1.5M NIH grant for vision research

SYRACUSE, N.Y.— Upstate Medical University researcher Andrea Viczian, Ph.D., has been awarded a four-year grant totaling nearly $1.5 million from the National Institutes of Health. The funding will help further her investigation into creating new pathways for the discovery of improved therapies to treat age-related macular degeneration.

Age-related macular degeneration is a disease associated with aging that gradually destroys sharp, central vision. Central vision is needed for seeing objects clearly and for common daily tasks such as reading and driving.

Viczian is studying cone photoreceptors cells in the retina that allow for day vision and that are linked to the disease.

Viczian is an assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and a member of the SUNY Eye Institute at Upstate Medical University. Her study is titled Retinal Progenitors for Vision Rescue. She and her team are working collaboratively with the laboratories of Peter Calvert, Ph.D., of Upstate, and David Gilbert, Ph.D., of Florida State University.

Using mouse embryonic cells, Viczian is studying the signals that cause pluripotent cells to differentiate into cone photoreceptors. Pluripotent cells can change into one of many cell types, including cone photoreceptors. She is investigating when in the lifespan of a pluripotent cell it transforms into a cone photoreceptor cell. The study hopes to discover a way to create more cone photoreceptor cells, which are needed for therapies to treat age-related macular degeneration.

"Cone photoreceptors account for only three percent of all retinal cells, yet are required for all day vision," said Viczian. "They also are primarily the cell class that is lost in age-related macular degeneration. Therapies that are designed to replace lost cones will require a rich source of these unique cells. Our efforts will help to identify the molecular mechanisms required to direct more plentiful pluripotent cell types to a cone lineage."

Viczian and her team have developed a unique approach to convert a high proportion of mouse embryonic pluripotent stem cells to cone photoreceptors. "Our results demonstrate that mouse embryonic stem cells, first converted to primitive ectoderm, can be directed to a cone cell fate in culture," she said. The ability to convert these cells provides Viczian and her team with a unique opportunity to study the mechanisms by which these rare cone photoreceptor cells form.

"Identifying the molecules driving cone formation is key to future experiments to determine the best conditions for cone cell replacement therapies in animal models of human blindness and for future studies in which we would generate human cone cells," she said.

Viczian's study fits the objectives of the NIH's National Eye Institute's National Plan for Eye and Vision Research. These objectives include determining how stem cells differentiate in the development of the visual system and how they can be used to understand the molecular logic of cell-type specific identify in the visual system.

Viczian also holds joint appointments at the university as assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, cell and developmental biology and neuroscience and physiology.