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A research team at UW-Madison was selected to work on a project designed to reverse blindness.

Teams from UW-Madison and Johns Hopkins University will work to study light-sensitive photoreceptor cells in the retina derived from human stem cells. Their goal is to determine what causes these cells to connect to the human body’s visual system so that information can be used to create viable treatments.

The research project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will be led by Dr. David Gamm, an associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at UW-Madison and director of the McPherson Eye Research Institute. Gamm and his colleagues have successfully created fully formed photoreceptor cells, but their work isn’t complete yet.

“The next step is to get them into the patient’s eye and then get it hooked up to the rest of the eye,” Gamm said.

To connect the photoreceptors to the visual system, Gamm said they may need to be influenced by other compounds.

Dr. Donald Zack and his team at Johns Hopkins University specialize in testing the effectiveness of thousands of compounds quickly with robotic technology. Without their help, Gamm said they would not be able to test nearly as many compounds without excessive amounts of time.

“These collaborative grants let us make bigger leaps,” Gamm said.

Irreversible blindness can come from damage to photoreceptor cells, which are the “rods and cones” in the eye that detect light and color.

Once these cells are damaged, the body has no way to replace them. Diseases like diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration can put photoreceptor cells at risk.

The long-term goal for this research is blindness reversal, but Gamm said that is years away. The first goal, he said, is restoring some vision to people whose photoreceptors have been destroyed.

Gamm’s research will not be able to improve vision for blindness caused by other factors such as brain damage.

While this project is to study photoreceptor attachment rather than practical treatment, Gamm hopes the research will be applied to human trials in three to five years.

The project is one of six for an initiative by the National Eye Institute aimed at regenerating neurons and their connections in the visual system. Together the initiative, called Audacious Goals, cost $12.4 million over three years.

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.