FFB-HHMI Fellowships Promote Retinal Research Careers to Medical Students

April 23, 2014

Continuing a partnership focused on inspiring and encouraging up-and-coming doctors to adopt careers in retinal-disease research and clinical care, the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) have awarded two new annual medical research fellowships. One goes to Adrian Au, a third-year medical student at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, the other to Andrew Zheng, who is in his third year at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

“Providing support for medical students to engage in a year of full-time, mentored research training at a pivotal time in their medical education is critical to the development of future physician-scientists,” says David J. Asai, Ph.D., senior director, science education, HHMI. “Our objective is to recruit and develop talented students who will be the future leaders of science, and who we hope will make fundamental discoveries for the betterment of human health.”

The 2014 fellowship awardees will take a year off from their medical education to conduct lab research for retinitis pigmentosa (RP) therapies. Under the mentorship of Stephanie Hagstrom, Ph.D., at the Cleveland Clinic, Au will evaluate pharmacologic compounds for treating RP caused by TULP mutations. With guidance from Stephen Tsang, M.D., Ph.D., Columbia University, Mr. Zheng will test various gene therapy strategies for RP caused by defects in the many genes that express phosphodiesterase (PDE) enzymes.

“I'm fascinated by how we are able to take a complex set of colors and light and interpret them as unique and meaningful experiences — ones that we remember and dream about. Unfortunately, not everyone gets that opportunity,” says Au, whose long-term plan is to be a physician-scientist. “Ophthalmologists face many diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa, with limited knowledge on the mechanisms of pathology. I would like to help give patients with these conditions a chance to see the same vibrancy and beauty that I am fortunate enough to see.”

Zheng plans to apply to ophthalmology residency programs after he completes his year of research. “I have come to appreciate ophthalmology’s uniquely robust tradition of clinical and basic research,” he says. “The more I learn about current research projects and advancements in the field, the more fascinated I became with the discipline as a whole.”

Zheng says that a pivotal moment for him came after attending a symposium honoring gene-therapy pioneer Jean Bennett, M.D., Ph.D., and Simon John, Ph.D., an HHMI investigator and a leader in glaucoma research. “There were eight speakers, each discussing their cutting-edge projects in stem cells, gene therapy, gene discovery and novel disease models,” he recalls. “The presentations were enlightening and transformative. I met with Dr. Tsang a few days later to discuss the details and logistics of my involvement in his lab.”

Stephen Rose, Ph.D., FFB’s chief research officer, says that more clinicians with research expertise are needed to support the increasing number of human studies for emerging treatments. “It’s a very exciting and promising time with the advent of clinical trials for retinal gene therapies, stem cells and vision-saving drugs, but we need more know-how and talent to run these studies,” he explains. “The HHMI-FFB partnership plays an important role in filling this critical need.”

In addition to awarding the new grants, the Foundation has also extended a second year of funding to Erika Ellis, an HHMI medical research fellow at the Janelia Farm Research Campus, who is studying how retinal ganglion cells map to the brain.

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.