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Biological engineering doctoral student wins research award

Doctoral student Rebecca Whiting has been awarded funding from the MU Institute for Clinical and Translational Science for her research to reduce blindness from retinal degeneration by injecting protective proteins derived from glial cells directly into the eyes. Whiting is currently conducting tests on Abyssinian cats, but hopes her research results will someday lead to treatments for human patients.

Story by: Jashin Lin

Mizzou graduate student Rebecca Whiting recently won a research award from the University of Missouri Institute for Clinical and Translational Science (MU-iCATS), for a project that aims to reduce blindness from retinal degeneration by injecting protective proteins directly into the eyes. It’s a lofty goal, but for her, it’s personal.

Whiting, a doctoral student in biological engineering, became interested in vision research when her older brother, affected by retinal degeneration, went blind at the age of 12.

“I hope that through projects like this one, we are able to discover and develop treatments that can prevent blindness or possibly even restore sight that has already been lost,” Whiting said.

The research, now funded with the $10,000 award from MU-iCATS, uses glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) to preserve sensitive photoreceptors in the eye and slow the progression of vision loss. GDNF is a protective protein produced by glial cells, which help maintain neurons throughout the nervous system. The protein is encapsulated in biodegradable microspheres and delivered through direct injection.

Research on GDNF has been successfully conducted on rodents. Whiting has taken it a step further by testing the protein on eyeballs more similar to human eyes – in this case, the eyes of Abyssinian cats in a colony maintained here at MU. If this research proves successful, more extensive studies can be proposed to the National Eye Institute, possibly leading to human clinical trials.

“The ultimate goal is to develop a viable human treatment to slow the death of photoreceptors and provide a longer period of useful sight for the patient,” Whiting said.

The treatment would be relatively convenient to use – injecting microspheres is a simple enough process that it could be performed as a basic outpatient procedure, to be repeated as necessary.

The impact may be even larger than just on eye treatments. GDNF isn’t confined to the eyes, and could possibly be used in other areas of the body to treat a variety of neurodegenerative disorders.

Whiting is working with Kristina Narfstrom, professor in veterinary opthamology, who has maintained the Abyssinian cat colony for 25 years. Researchers in California and Spain have also been consulted on the experimental design and the GDNF microsphere encapsulation.

So far, four cats affected by retinal degeneration have been injected with GDNF in one eye each. Whiting examines the cats each month with a procedure to measure electrical activity from the photoreceptors, comparing the progress of the treated eyes with the corresponding untreated eyes. The results have been positive so far.

“We plan to test several more cats in the coming months,” Whiting said.