Medical Students Awarded Fellowships to Pursue Retinal Research

April 21, 2015

While driving research to treat and cure retinal diseases is at the core of the Foundation’s mission, enabling young clinician-scientists to develop promising therapies and move them through human studies is also critical to its commitment to eradicating blindness. Continuing its collaboration with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which began in 2009, the Foundation has awarded annual fellowships to two medical students, who will take a year away from their clinical education to conduct retinal-disease research.

Emily Chang, a second-year student at Baylor College of Medicine, will investigate a new approach to gene therapy for people with autosomal dominant retinitis pigmentosa (adRP). With Baylor’s Theodore Wensel, Ph.D., as her mentor, she’ll develop a technology called CRISPR-Cas9 to edit, and ultimately, correct, the genetic code leading to adRP.

“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to explore a cutting-edge gene therapy to potentially halt the progression of retinitis pigmentosa, the most prevalent hereditary cause of blindness in the world,” says Chang, who is planning a career in clinical ophthalmologic research. “Also, it will make everything I learn in medical school more meaningful, as I gain an understanding of the countless hours of research behind seemingly tiny discoveries in medicine.”

The other fellowship goes to Tedi Begaj, a third-year medical student at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He will take a year off from the clinic to develop a gene therapy that promotes the survival of cones, the cells in the retina responsible for central, color and daytime vision, as well as the ability to perceive details. He’ll be mentored by Harvard’s Constance Cepko, Ph.D.

Begaj became interested in ophthalmologic research during his undergraduate years. “I studied biomedical engineering and medical optics to fundamentally understand the eye, and I was involved in a research group that worked to develop computational models of how the eye is biomechanically affected by keratoconus, a corneal degenerative disorder,” he says. “I also studied retinitis pigmentosa in the Cepko Lab at Harvard. It was an incredible opportunity, because I was able to conduct research with support from outstanding scientists with excellent capabilities and tools in a scientific niche that greatly intrigues me.”

Stephen Rose, Ph.D., chief research officer at the Foundation, says that the HHMI Medical Research Fellows Program is a valuable source of clinical-research candidates, because of the talented applicants it attracts. “The program is highly competitive, spanning many disciplines,” he explains. “We’re delighted that HHMI is partnering with us to enable high-potential, up-and-coming investigators to explore careers in inherited retinal diseases.”

The HHMI partnership is part of the Foundation’s Alan Laties Career Development program, which also provides awards for physicians and physician-scientists at various points in their careers, including those who are in post-residency and serving in junior- and senior-level faculty positions. More than 100 individuals have received career development awards from the Foundation.