Dasha Nelidova at the Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology in Switzerland, is the winner of the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists in the category of Molecular Medicine, for her work on the development of new therapies for treating retinal diseases that lead to blindness. “We have shown that it is possible to combine gene therapy and nanotechnology to achieve in vivo neuromodulation”, she says.
In pursuit of new therapies for blinding diseases, Dasha travelled from Auckland, New Zealand, to Basel, Switzerland. Her work led to the novel approach of expressing mammalian or snake TRP channels in light-insensitive retinal cones. For her work, she wins the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists, in the category of Molecular Medicine.
“I’m very honored to receive this prize. It will help us to further accelerate the design and development of novel therapies to treat blinding diseases”, she says.
What kind of research do you think might follow in the wake of your results?
“We are working to overcome crucial bottlenecks in therapy development, step-by-step. The problem our group wanted to address is how to do retinal circuit repair in vivo when vision remains, and “regular” optogenetic sensors are effectively contraindicated. We hope that a NIR approach will lead to restoration of central vision, in the future.”
Which part of your work with this was the hardest?
“Arnold Szabo (Semmelweis Uni, Budapest) came up with the method to keep human retinas ‘alive’ in tissue culture for many weeks post-mortem. This is an important development in the field. Gene therapy viral vectors need many weeks of incubation before gene expression reaches adequate levels, so preclinical evaluation is significantly aided by this development. Cameron Cowan then recorded NIR light-induced human retinal activity.“
What inspired you to pursue a PhD in neurobiology, and then pursue specialist training in ophthalmology?
“Globally, the prevalence of eye diseases is rising. Once central vision is lost, there is no effective therapy.”
How did you come up with the idea to express snake TRP channels in retinal cones to address retinal degeneration?
“We work on optogenetic visual restoration and have for many years now. Optogenetics entail the delivery of microbial visible-spectrum sensitive opsins to different retinal cell types to restore sensitivity to light. We focus on delivery of optogenetic tools to blind cone photoreceptors since this best preserves natural retinal image processing. But it was also clear that compatibility with remaining vision would have to be addressed at some point”.
“A wavelength shift is a straight-forward way of minimizing activation of normal photoreceptors. Therefore, we searched for ways to make cells near-infrared sensitive, and genetically targetable. TRP-nanorods was the simplest approach we could come up with”.
Will you be able to try this on living humans with retinal degeneration in the future?
“Over the coming years, we will be working together with translational experts and medical colleagues on a number of further studies in order to bring near-infrared visual restoration to patients blinded by macular degeneration. Different features of the NIR light sensor will need to be optimized over the coming years. Only then are clinical trials possible.”
What do you like to do in your spare time?
“I’m a dancer so either I dance or I teach.”