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Research to Prevent Blindness

A Passion Fueled By RPB

Drs. Maureen and Jay Neitz
 

Maureen Neitz, PhD, has received four RPB grants, a distinction achieved by only four other researchers. Jay Neitz, PhD, has received an RPB Senior Scientific Investigator Award. They have also received RPB unrestricted departmental support for more than 20 years, including the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, their current home. "There's no way we'd be who we are today without RPB," says Maureen.

Doctors Maureen and Jay Neitz met as lab partners in an electron microscopy class in their last semester before graduate school.
"We had discovered our passion for science at the time but not eye research," recalls Jay. "We fell in love and got married a little more
than a year after our first date."
 
After graduation, PhDs in hand, they pooled their intellectual resources—combining Maureen's expertise in molecular genetics with Jay's in neuroscience—to focus on the biological basis of visual perception. "We discovered the joy of being able to collaborate on truly translational research when we took our first faculty positions at the Medical College of Wisconsin," says Jay. "Maureen was offered a position in Ophthalmology and I eventually joined her there where we were introduced to RPB."
 
Maureen: "I received an RPB Career Development Award, which really helped me to get launched. I was able to use it to purchase equipment and move into new technology."
 
Jay: "Working in Ophthalmology opened a new world of research op-
portunities for us. Suddenly we had ideas of ways our basic science work on vision could be translated into applications that could help people with vision disorders. Maureen's RPB money was instrumental in getting those first, more translational, experiments started, including discovering the genetic basis of common eye disorders, developing diagnostic tests and gene therapies. But having access to unrestricted departmental funds has also been important to us."
 
The Neitzes, whose goal is to develop a set of gene-based tools that can be useful in treating many human blinding disorders, have fully leveraged the flexibility of RPB's unrestricted grants. Their first step toward their goal came when they demonstrated that color blindness (which affects four percent of the population and eight percent of men) can potentially be cured through gene therapy.
 
"An RPB award says 'We believe in you. Now, go innovate,'" says Jay. "Once you innovate, then you have data with which to access other funding." 
 
"But that funding, from the government and other sources, tends
to be project-specific and restricted," adds Maureen. "There have
been times when our most significant finding was unrelated to an
NIH grant, and RPB was critical in allowing us to pivot and pursue
some of the really exciting things we are still working on."
 
"When you're working away in research, you are doing things that no
one has ever done before and unexpected things come up," says Jay.
"RPB's model makes eminent sense."
 
For years, the Neitzes have been examining genetic and environ
mental factors involved in extreme myopia (nearsightedness),
which develops during childhood. Contemporary scientific literature
holds that there are two main factors that influence risk of myopia:
if both parents are myopic, and if a child spends little time outside. The
Neitzes discovered that excessive close work (like reading, or work-
ing on something held close to the face) and exposure to the red light
spectrum both activate the same genes that cause the developing
eyeball to elongate, which leads to myopia. 
 
That finding helped explain why there is a higher prevalence of myopia in cultures where there is an emphasis on close work performed under artificial lighting (incandescent light is largely red), such as in Singapore—where 90 percent of high school graduates are myopic—and in many other Asian cultures.
 
Recently, the Neitzes were told by a colleague about an aboriginal
Argentinian tribe that lives in the forest as hunter-gatherers. "They
have no artificial lighting, they spend the entire day outside, they
have no electricity and, genetically, they are related to other Asian peo
-ples," says Jay. "They represented a perfect opportunity to study myo
-pia in a people who carry the genes but are unaffected by today's artifi
-cial environments. To test their eyes, we identified a portable device, but we had no money to buy it with. So we went to our chair, here in
Seattle, and he allocated some RPB unrestricted funds for the purchase."
 
Jay spent a month in the Argentinian jungle and found compelling
evidence for the role played by environmental factors in myopia. Not
a single tribe member was myopic.
 
Maureen, meanwhile, stayed back in the laboratory to push forward with a large scale DNA analysis that examines the association between light-
sensitive protein mutations and myopia. "Jay loves the work in the field,"
says Maureen. "I Iove the lab work. We are perfectly matched."

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