Restoring sight to blind eyes is considered nothing short of a miracle. By that measure, John Flannery is a miracle worker in the making. A Berkeley professor of neurobiology, Flannery is developing ways to cure genetic diseases of the retina. These devastating conditions include retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration.
As a vice chairman of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, Flannery has met many patients with inherited retinal diseases and their families. “I’d never encountered that kind of desperation before, particularly among parents,” he says. Asymptomatic parents who have a child with a blinding disease “will go anywhere; they’ll do anything they can to help. It’s an incredible motivator to go back to the lab bench.”
Scientists have identified virtually all of the roughly 150 different genes that cause inherited retinal diseases. Most act alone on the class of cells known as the photoreceptors. These sensors, commonly known as rods and cones, transform light into electrical signals that can be interpreted by the brain.
Flannery is using a combination of genetic tools and viral delivery systems to treat diseased photoreceptors. Already his work has contributed to an experimental treatment that has returned some vision to more than two dozen people. Flannery is now refining these techniques and expanding their application, work that will return sight to affected patients.
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