National Eye Institute Provides Funding to WVU for Retinal Degeneration Research

National Eye Institute Provides Funding to WVU for Retinal Degeneration Research

January 07, 2022

West Virginia University School of Medicine has received funding from National Eye Institute to conduct research on inherited retinal degeneration, which can lead to blindness.

Peter Stoilov and Visvanathan Ramamurthy, researchers at the WVU, have spent the last several years collaborating to study proteins called Musashi, the loss of which causes rapid retinal degeneration.

Their project recently received its fifth year of funding worth $502,444 from the National Eye Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

“The big problem with treating retinal disease is that it's such a scattered target that you cannot hit it with just one therapy. Retinal disease is caused by hundreds of genetic mutations in tens of different genetic loci, and so you need to treat each mutation individually,” said Peter Stoilov, Associate Professor, Department of Biochemistry, West Virginia University School of Medicine.

“We think once we have a good understanding of what Musashi proteins do and how to manipulate their function, we can develop a universal therapy for blinding diseases."

The Musashi proteins are two very similar RNA-binding proteins found in all vertebrates. Musashi proteins are crucial for photoreceptor development and survival, according to previous research by Stoilov and Ramamurthy.

The researchers are now trying to figure out what Musashi proteins perform on a molecular level and why they are so critical for photoreceptor health. They also want to determine if the Musashi are controlling protein translation in the retina directly and investigate the role the proteins play in regulating gene suppression.

"I think the hardest task in this grant is to assign a weight to all these different potential mechanisms," Stoilov said. "How important is direct regulation versus indirect regulation? And these hypotheses may not be mutually exclusive."

Treatment options for people with retinal degenerative diseases are limited and expensive as they only work when certain mutations are present.

"A reduction in the production of proteins needed for vision is frequently associated with human blindness," said Ramamurthy, a professor with the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and chair of the Department of Biochemistry. "Our studies on Musashi will identify potential pathways to boost protein production and slow vision loss."

Stoilov and Ramamurthy believe that gaining a better knowledge of the processes that contribute to retinal degeneration and blindness would lead to more universally effective and less expensive treatments for people suffering from retinal degenerative diseases.

"I think the results of this project will give us a global, very good fundamental understanding of what happens during retinal degeneration," Stoilov said. "That is universal, and it can be applied broadly to retinal degeneration regardless of what the immediate cause is."