As reported by Carrie Fogel in the Fall 2015 Sight & Sound newsletter of the Eye and Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh, while most people anticipate the summer season as a time for vacations and time away from work, that was not the case for McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Jeffrey Gross, PhD, the new Director of the Louis J. Fox Center for Vision Restoration. Dr. Gross arrived in Pittsburgh in late July; a time when many were spending their days on sunny beaches, Dr. Gross was already hard at work setting up his new laboratory in the University of Pittsburgh’s Biomedical Science Tower. Dr. Gross’ research is now conducted at the Charles and Louella Snyder Laboratory for Retinal Regeneration and focuses on ocular development, disease, and regeneration.
“I had an initial phone conversation with McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine faculty member Joel Schuman, MD, Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh, during which we discussed the Fox Center and the collaboration of the Department of Ophthalmology with the McGowan Institute, which I found interesting.” After a few meetings with Dr. Schuman, Dr. Gross came away from each visit more enthusiastic. “I really liked that here, at Pitt, the clinicians and basic scientists can collaborate and the barrier in getting everyone to talk to each other does not exist, as it does at other institutions and it shows in the science that is being done here.” The scientists, too, left a positive impression on Dr. Gross: “It feels like the scientists and the physicians have this ‘can-do attitude.’ Everyone I talked to made me believe that if you had a research question, people are ready to jump in and work with you and it feels like the whole team wants everyone to be successful.”
In addition to the positive reactions he received from the scientists, the unique partnership that exists among University of Pittsburgh scientists, McGowan Institute scientists, and UPMC physicians was attractive to Dr. Gross as well: “It’s very collaborative here and, as someone who sees the great potential for collaboration in the direction my work is headed, I understood how beneficial it could be for my research. The science being done here is fantastic. People actively solve problems here and that helps find opportunities for collaboration as well as finding funding for projects. The hurdles that exist to doing innovative science are minimal at Pitt, and it seemed like we could really succeed here.”
The laboratory, he explains, is a basic science laboratory that focuses on understanding the diseases of the eye, why certain people get them, and developing regenerative therapies to cure them. We investigate genetics and molecular biology and use zebrafish models, because their genetic makeup is similar to that of humans and they have a remarkable ability to regenerate their retina and Retinal Pigment Epithelial (RPE) cells after injury. Additionally, any effects of the genetic changes that are made to the zebrafish model are easy to see, as larvae and embryos are transparent, meaning that ocular defects can be more easily tracked than in mammal models. As Dr. Gross explains, “We can create a mutation in a genome and identify fish that have eye diseases that resemble humans, like macular degeneration, cataracts, coloboma, and more. By understanding what proteins and compounds are present or not present, we can see how that creates a defect and thus how you create therapies to counteract that defect from occurring. You need to understand what went wrong so that you can fix it.”
As the new director of the Fox Center, Dr. Gross is focused on supporting the research already happening and growing the support base for the center. One goal he does hope to accomplish is to strengthen our capacity to fund seed projects. “The way that federal funding works now is that it’s hard to find support for really innovative new ideas. At the Fox Center, we want to foster this innovation and creativity because we believe that this is how really groundbreaking research comes about.” Dr. Gross hopes that by using donor support, which has already contributed so much, that will leverage support from the National Eye Institute, as well as other large foundations. “The research here is fantastic,” he says, “and I believe we’re well on our way to establishing ourselves nationally and internationally as THE center for regenerative ophthalmology.”
Illustration: E. Matilda Ziegler Foundation for the Blind, Inc.