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Smith awarded $300,000 grant to continue vision study

Note: The Lions Club of Augusta will host “Terri Gibbs and Friends” at 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28 at the Imperial Theatre – a benefit a concert for Augusta University’s James and Jean Culver Vision Discovery Institute.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Similar to the way a camera captures a picture, light-sensing photoreceptor cells in the back of the eye provide detailed, color images for everyday sight.

Nevertheless, millions of people around the world suffer from deteriorating vision and blindness when these microscopic photoreceptors malfunction. This problem is called retinal degenerative disease, and the two most common forms are age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. Because of the extent and severity of these conditions, scientists are seeking new treatment strategies to help solve the problem.

The Foundation Fighting Blindness has awarded a three-year, $300,000 grant to Dr. Sylvia Smith, a researcher and co-director of the James and Jean Culver Vision Discovery Institute at Augusta University, to further study retinitis pigmentosa. Smith’s team is one of only six research teams in the country to receive an individual investigator research awards from the Foundation Fighting Blindness.

Smith, a Regents Professor and the Department Chair of Cellular Biology and Anatomy at the Medical College of Georgia, is studying the role that a particular pain medicine could play in preserving vision. In an animal model with severe retinal degeneration, the drug pentazocine – a narcotic analgesic – enables the survival of cone cells, a type of photoreceptor, according to Smith.

There was a “striking” preservation of cone function in affected mice treated with pentazocine, said Smith, retinal cell biologist and corresponding author of the study, which was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, cone function was essentially the same as in normal mice, while vision loss progressed as expected in untreated mutant mice.

Another finding in Smith’s study was that mice lacking sigma receptor 1 did not benefit from pentazocine treatment, more evidence of the receptor’s essential role in retinal protection. Last summer, in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine, Smith’s lab showed sigma 1 receptor’s clear role in a healthy retina.

The grant from the Foundation Fighting Blindness will enable Dr. Smith to bolster her research in targeting sigma 1 receptor in retinitis pigmentosa.

The Foundation Fighting Blindness is the world’s leading private source for inherited retinal disease research funding. The foundation is committed to driving research until the entire spectrum of retinal degenerative diseases is eradicated. For more information about the foundation, please visit, blindness.org

About the author

Denise Parrish

Denise Parrish is Senior Media Relations Coordinator at Augusta University. Contact her to schedule an interview on this topic or with one of our experts at 706-721-9566 or mparrish@augusta.edu.