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ARVO Update on Optogenetics: New Light for People with Advanced Vision Loss

Keirnan Willett.One of the promising emerging approaches to restoring vision in people with advanced retinal diseases is a form of therapy known as optogenetics. In essence, this type of treatment restores light sensitivity — and, potentially, meaningful vision — to people who have very little, if any, vision remaining. An important benefit of optogenetics is that it should work regardless of the underlying genetic defect causing the disease. While it is too early to speculate how well optogenetics will ultimately work, we’re hoping it ends up retiring a lot of white canes.

One of the optogenetics posters at this year’s Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) conference features a canine study conducted by a Foundation-funded collaboration. I had the pleasure of getting a presentation of the poster from Keirnan Willett, a young member of that team from the University of Pennsylvania. The group also includes Drs. Jose Sahel, of the Institut de la Vision, and Botond Roska, of the Friedrich Miescher Institute.

Keirnan explained that the treatment is a gene therapy designed to reactivate dormant cones by making them light-sensitive. The treatment leads to the sustained production of halorhodopsin, a light-sensitive protein. The research is still at an early stage; three dogs with retinal diseases — two with retinitis pigmentosa and one with cone-rod dystrophy — have been treated thus far.

Keirnan said there were no signs of inflammation or infection, which is a critical outcome at this juncture.  There was a suggestion that the dogs could navigate a maze better after treatment, but more dogs need to studied, and additional measures of vision improvement need to be taken.

Among the other interesting projects on optogenetics reviewed at ARVO was LambdaVision’s subretinal chip, which provides sustained release of light-sensitive proteins, and a drug therapy from the Foundation-funded Kramer Lab, at the University of California, Berkeley, which restores light sensitivity to a degenerating retina. These, too, are in early lab studies, but are promising projects.

We have not made the white cane obsolete just yet, but thanks to therapies like optogenetics, we are making good progress toward that goal.

Pictured, above: Keirnan Willett.

10 Responses to 'ARVO Update on Optogenetics: New Light for People with Advanced Vision Loss'

  1. Irv Arons says:

    In addition to those mentioned by Dr. Rose above as involved in using optogenetic therapy to restore vision, I am tracking several others, as I noted in my recent writeup about Restoring Normal Vision to the Blind (, including EOS Neuroscience, GenSight Biologics and RetroSense, and of course the team of Drs. Sheila Nirenberg (Cornell) and William Haurwirth (Univ. of Florida).

  2. HASHIM SHAH says:

    My son ADIL SHAH aged 15 years suffering from RP, his vision is getting low day by day and we are not able to do anything, He wants to study his desires are very high. I do not know how to handle him.

    Can you please help us and do something so that his vision can be retained / improved.

    Very anxiously awaiting for your postive reply.

    16, 1st FLOOR, FAIZ-E-EDROOS
    MUMBAI 400 009, INDIA
    TEL : 00 91 22 23455582
    MOB : 00 91 9820182598
    FAX : 00 91 22 23476116
    E. MAIL :

    • EyeOnTheCure says:

      I think it is important for your son to get genetically tested to try and identify the genetic defect causing his RP. That will help pinpoint which emerging treatments may make sense for him. As part of that process, it is important that he get a thorough exam by a retinal doctor who is familiar with RP. I apologize that I am not aware of such a doctor in Mumbai, but you may try contacting the following organization:

      Retina India
      Ridhi Sidhi Bhavan
      2nd floor 2/12
      Babu Genu Road
      Mumbai 400 002
      Phone: +91 22 2205 2308 (11am-6pm Monday to Friday)
      Retina India Helpline: +91 9820087755

      If you want information about doctors in other countries, contact us at

      Here is a Web link to information on genetic testing. We recommend that you share this with the physician.

  3. Sanyukta Kher says:

    Is there any update on research on StarGardt’s disease

  4. richard says:

    clinic told me I have lost 90%of my vision from Glaucoma.Any suggestions what I can do now to help me navigate through the day?
    thanks so much
    DR>anna Singh at tha Cleveland

    • Eye on the Cure says:

      Richard, thank you for your message. Unfortunately, we can only speak about research for retinal degenerative diseases that affect the retina in the eye. Your doctors and other eye specialists will be best suited to answer your questions about what treatments are available for your own condition.

      You may want to visit the website of the National Eye Institute ( or reach out to someone at the institute – they may be able to point you in the correct direction on other resources or organizations who specialize in your condition.

      We wish you all the best as you try to find out more.

  5. Staci Rhodes says:

    I am a veterinarian and both of my boys ages 11 and 17 were diagnosed with RP this year. I would like to do anything to advance the cause, I have a canine patient diagnosed with SARDS this year which may be available for use in research. Spirit is an 8 year old Boykin Spaniel. Please contact me if he could be of any help,

    • Eye on the Cure says:

      Thank you for your comment, Staci. We only fund research for inherited retinal diseases. Because SARDS is not inherited, it doesn’t fall into our realm. FYI: We do fund canine research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, some of which is RP-related; researchers have identified canine models of RP. These models are helping advance gene therapies and other treatment approaches for RP.

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