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Peter Calvert, PhD, with a photo of Weiskotten Hall.

Upstate vision researcher lands $2.6 million NIH grant and prestigious national innovation award

An Upstate Medical University researcher and professor has been awarded a five-year $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for his work studying diseases that cause blindness.

Peter Calvert, PhD, is a professor in the department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. He’s been studying retinal degeneration at Upstate for 15 years. His latest grant from NIH is his third iteration of a grant funding this aspect of his research, which he says has made “steady progress,” since it began in 2007.

Calvert was also recently awarded a prestigious Research to Prevent Blindness Stein Innovation Award, which funds high-risk, high-gain ideas in vision science. Calvert is the first at Upstate to receive a Stein Innovation Award, which comes with $300,000 in research money over two years. The nonprofit Research to Prevent Blindness organization typically gives out only two Stein Innovation Awards per year. The award is one of the most highly sought in vision research. This year, RPB awarded four Steins to propel research during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The competitively renewed NIH grant is for Calvert’s project, “Mechanisms of photoreceptor protein transport and compartmentalization.” Calvert explains his research this way: “This work seeks to understand the molecular mechanisms of retinal photoreceptor protein compartmentalization. Retinal degeneration and blindness may be caused by improper delivery of proteins to specialized regions within photoreceptors, the light-detecting cells in our eyes. Understanding the mechanisms that control photoreceptor construction, and what goes wrong with this process in blinding diseases, will help find new therapies to extend or restore vision.”

Calvert said he and his lab of four researchers have found interesting preliminary data that suggests the electrical activity of the cells is involved in the compartmentalization process.

“Cells in the retina respond to light with changes in electrical activity and we wondered if this electrical activity could be driving some of the movement of the proteins. So that’s a big part of what this new grant is about – understanding protein movement at a biophysical level,” he said. “We’re making steady progress on different aspects of this process and we’ve made a couple of very significant breakthroughs in the understanding of how it works.” A recent paper from Calvert’s laboratory has been selected as one of the key breakthrough publications for 2021 by the Journal of Cell Biology.

An area of focus for Calvert’s lab is Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare degenerative eye disease that leads to blindness. Those suffering from it can lose their eyesight in their 20s, a devastating medical condition that Calvert said he finds motivating to continue seeking a cure.

“People are very visually oriented. Vision is such a big part of our lives,” he said. “I particularly feel for the younger people who are losing their vision through things like Retinitis Pigmentosa. I just think it must be devastating to have grown up with vision and then just as you’re becoming a young adult losing it. It would be terrible.”

The Research to Prevent Blindness Stein Innovation Award seeks established scientists who have an idea that is “really out of the box that could really impact the field,” Calvert said. After being nominated, Calvert proposed a study that looks at how individual molecules move throughout cells in the retina. “What we’re particularly trying to do with this award is to develop high-end super resolution microscopy approaches that allow us to watch individual proteins moving with photoreceptors in the living retina."

“It’s a pretty prestigious award – they don’t give a huge number of them out,” he said. “For me, it’s recognition that the vision community sees me and my lab as working on cutting-edge technology and important problems in blinding disease. It’s also recognition that the Ophthalmology Department at Upstate is pushing the boundaries in vision research.”