Dr. Riccardo Natoli, a retinal researcher at JCSMR and the ANU Medical School, was recently awarded the inaugural McPherson Eye Research Institute (MERI) Visiting Scholarship sponsored by Professor Janis Eells and Professor Akihiro Ikeda from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was also invited to present at a symposium at the 2018 Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) annual meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, the largest conference in the field of vision science. The locations were stunning. The science? Even better.
As I flew into Hawaii for the recent ARVO meeting I was struck by two things: the spectacular location of the conference; and the fact that I was about to present the last five years’ worth of work to an international audience. Talk about no time to enjoy the view. The opportunity to present our work on microRNA (miRNA) in retinal degenerations as an invited speaker at the recent ARVO meeting in Honolulu was one of the highlights of my career so far. We are very proud of the progress we have made in understanding the role that these molecules play in the degenerating retina and their use as both a therapeutic and diagnostic. We knew the work was good, but the outstanding response we received internationally showed it was more than that. Following the presentation, there were numerous positive comments, questions, and collaborations established. The possibilities of future work prospects were overwhelming. The enthusiasm with which the international community embraced our work made the long nights and weekend work all seem worthwhile.
The conference ended as quickly as it started and I suddenly found myself back on a plane heading for the University of Wisconsin-Madison to commence my MERI visiting Scholarship and road trip to a few of the surrounding universities. Those who live in Madison, Wisconsin have told me that there are only two seasons, ‘winter’ and ‘roadworks’. As ‘roadworks’ were in full flight, I was glad that it was not the -10 degree average that Madison so generously gifts in the winter. One of my hosts Professor Janis Eells, who works at both the Milwaukee and Madison campuses of the University of Wisconsin, has been a long-term collaborator over the past decade and has been investigating the effects of 670nm red light as a possible therapeutic for retinal degenerations. Her work has been pivotal in progressing this non-invasive therapy and we look forward to further developing this in the coming years. My other host, Professor Akihiro Ikeda has developed a number of unique retinal degenerative models many of which replicate the degeneration seen in human diseases such as Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD). We also look forward to working with Akihiro and establishing a long-term collaboration in the near future.
Furthermore, I was lucky enough to spend time in the laboratory of Professor David Gamm who is the Emmett A. Humble Distinguished Director of the McPherson Eye Research Institute, the Sandra Lemke Trout Chair in Eye Research, and an Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work is focused on the development of a technique to grow retinal tissue, the neural light-sensing portion of the eye, in a petri dish. These cellular structures, called 3-D retinal organoids, can then be used to model disease as well as tissue sourcing for transplantation. This work combined with the potential to grow the patient’s own neurons using induced pluripotent stem cells, moves his work from a thing of science fiction, to science fact.
I would like to thank David, Janis and Akihiro and their labs, as well as all the wonderful members of MERI, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Medical College of Milwaukee for their hospitality, time and exchange of knowledge. A part of me will always be in the picturesque town of Madison. However, it is now time to get back to the lab and put some of this new knowledge into action.