Anne Rudloff Stanton loves romance. She loves the way it looks, the way it sounds, and the way it smells—but only when it’s found in the margins of 14th-century books. The professor of Art History and Archaeology describes one example—a small drawing of a man leaving a woman—and she leans forward as if she were talking about a mutual friend of ours. “There’s this long sequence of the story of Moses, who, as you may not know, was married before he married Zipporah,” she begins. “He first married the daughter of the king of Ethiopia.”
Imagine waking to a bright, sunny day, but not really being able to see. Some people go their whole lives without witnessing that vivid red ball from their youth or the facial features of a loved one. Kristina Narfström, a veterinary ophthalmologist at the University of Missouri, is doing research that promises to provide some light at the end of the tunnel.
Take a good, hard mental image of a long line of people stretched for blocks. If you expand the line to roughly 100,000, this is the number of people waiting for an organ transplant. The imbalanced patient-to-organ ratio leaves many to die while waiting their turn. In response, some researchers try to tap into animal organs to save human lives, but those organs do not always work.
Research in the University of Missouri’s Division of Animal Sciences may help solve this medical debacle by using genetic modification. When an organ goes from one animal to another (like to a human), preexisting antibodies in the human bind to the organ’s sugar molecules and kill the organ, making it useless. “When you take a pig cell and transfer it to a human, the molecule is immediately recognized as foreign,” explains MU’s Animal Science Professor, Randall Prather. “Within minutes you’ll get hyperacute rejection, and the cells will be destroyed.”
Another treatment involves inserting a small microchip to replace the dead photoreceptors and get the electrical juices of the eye flowing. This device, known as an Artificial Silicon Retina (ASR), is conceptually similar to a bionic eye. The ASR was designed more than 15 years ago to enhance human vision. Narfström hopes that her research will improve the chip.
The human eye is a very complex organ. Narfström describes its structure and explains why the retina is the most important part of the eye.
Narfström is interested in the hereditary blindness that originates in human photoreceptor cells. She studies dogs and cats that contract blinding conditions similar to those found in human beings.
Genetic transfer can be used to replace dead photoreceptor cells. Narfström employs this method to correct protein defects in the eyes. The procedure involves injecting a construct – a vehicle that brings the protein the correct DNA – into the retina cell. The construct is then transported into the nucleus, where it is translated to make the correct protein.
Because it is not possible to ask cats and dogs about the severity of their blindness, Narfström describes other ways to assess an animal’s vision, including behavioral studies.
Prather talks about his work with genetic modification. The modified swine are marked by a green florescent glow on their snouts. Such modifications on the pigs could positively impact agriculture and medicine.