Dalhousie University retinal researcher Gautam Awatramani has already helped restore sight to blind mice.
And in a few years, Awatramani hopes his research will bring hope of renewed sight to people with degenerative eye diseases.
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“At the rate things are going, I think in the next couple of years it should be tested on humans,” Awatramani said. “It’s really, really exciting.”
Last year, Awatramani was part of an international team of researchers in Switzerland who added Channelrhodopsin, an algae derivative that’s light-activated, to specific parts of the retina. The molecule allowed their mouse subjects to see light, which prompted them to run around in their cages.
The gene therapy could prove helpful to people with age-related macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa, whose eyesight is slowly dimming. Other research has focused on expensive electronic implants that require surgery.
The mice had one-third the sight of a mouse with an undamaged retina. Similar results for humans would probably mean the subject would have to wear special glasses, Awatramani said.
“If you’re really debilitated, I don’t think you’ll be reading the New York Times for quite a while, but any sensation or light would be very helpful.”
Awatramani’s new lab at Dalhousie will soon begin looking for ways to help damaged retinas detect the absence of light. He’ll also work with his brother, a genetic engineer at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Awatramani and his colleagues recently published their work in the journal Nature Neuroscience.