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Winning projects

Professor Maciej Wojtkowski and Professor Krzysztof Palczewski

Project:

International Center for Translational Eye Research (ICTER)

Authors:

Professor Maciej Wojtkowski and professor Krzysztof Palczewski

Financial support:

34 999 400 PLN

Project location:

Institute of Physical Chemistry, Polish Academy of Sciences

Foreign strategic partner:

University College London Institute of Ophthalmology

Fields of research:

Medical physics, Biochemistry, Instrumentation engineering, Pharmaceutical sciences, Optometry, Biomedical engineering

Project aims:

Research into the dynamics and plasticity of the human eye, which will lead to the development new therapies and diagnostic tools.

 

A revolution in the diagnostics and treatment of eye diseases

The number of people suffering from various visual dysfunctions, not infrequently leading to blindness, is currently on the rise in ageing populations. Major causes of visual impairment include cataract, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy. Early diagnosis and treatment are necessary to minimise the destructive and irreversible consequences of these diseases. This forms the principal objective to be pursued by the International Center for Translational Eye Research (ICTER) – a new scientific centre established by Prof. Maciej Wojtkowski and Prof. Krzysztof Palczewski, awardees of the International Research Agendas (IRAP) programme conducted by the Foundation for Polish Science.

Formally, the International Center for Translational Eye Research (ICTER) will be established as a newly-created subunit of the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. The ICTER structure will rely on up to five independent research groups. The University College London (UCL) Institute of Ophthalmology in the United Kingdom will be ICTER’s international partner.

“The underlying scientific objective of the International Center for Translational Eye Research is to better understand the dynamics and plasticity of the human eye, which will translate itself into developing new therapies and diagnostic tools. This becomes especially important considering that the burden of vision loss and impairment will concern a growing number of people, as the human life-span increases in developed countries. This escalating concern has been acknowledged on a global scale by such organisations as the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB),” said Prof. Maciej Wojtkowski.

Vision consists of a complex and multi-staged process, which has already been well explored, mainly through major advancements in genetics, proteomics or imaging techniques. Nonetheless, the aetiology of many eye diseases, including especially retinal disorders, has remained fairly unknown. In order to begin unraveling this mystery, it appears indispensable to thoroughly understand the complex cellular mechanisms responsible for the proper functioning of the retina, and to clarify the impact of various molecules on the occurrence of degenerative changes within that tissue. That is the intent of the founders of ICTER.

In order to verify new findings, it is necessary to develop new functional methods of in vivo retinal microstructure imaging, which constitutes one of the challenges taken on by Prof. Wojtkowski and Prof. Palczewski. “We seek to surpass the existing physical limits, and develop new methods and tools of non-invasive, safe and repeatable retinal imaging, based on novel spatio-temporal coherence imaging approaches and two-photon excited fluorescence,” said Prof. Maciej Wojtkowski. “The tools to be developed will provide comprehensive insights into both the morphological and functional aspects of individual retinal cells. This will open unprecedented and unique opportunities in ophthalmology by providing information about functional changes in response to age or to pharmacological treatments.”

Therefore, the novel methods of measuring retinal function will not only serve the purpose of expanding the scientific knowledge about the vision process but they will also be used as diagnostic tools to detect pathological eye changes earlier than with the current diagnostic equipment and procedures. Real-time retinal imaging will also prove critical for evaluating various drug candidates for pharmacological treatment of retinal degeneration and other retinal pathologies.

The combination of innovative retinal visualisation methods and the most recent pharmacological discoveries will let the scientists propose alternative ways of treating complex human retinal diseases. “Most of all, we wish to provide a rationale for selecting new pharmacological interventions by elucidating the contribution of particular molecules to retinal degenerative diseases,” said Prof. Krzysztof Palczewski. Professor Palczewski and his team of collaborators have been studying the pharmacology of vision for over 30 years. By targeting specific stages of the visual cycle, they have been able to restore vision to animals which had the same mutations as patients with retinitis pigmentosa and other congenital mutations that result in blindness. The new methods proposed by Prof. Palczewski represent a departure from classical pharmacology wherein one enzyme, metabolite or physiological outcome is corrected through a precisely defined mechanism. Instead, the scientists wish to develop new therapies to impact on a myriad of biochemical pathways responsible for vision.

Another challenge is to deliver new compounds to the retina in an effective and controlled way. “Currently, intravitreal injections are the method of choice to administer drugs to the retina. Unfortunately, this approach is applicable only in selected cases and its potential remains hugely untapped. Exceptional precision and the abilitiy to manoeuvre in a tightly constrained and fragile workspace are required to operate on micron-scale targets, such as those presented by the retina. These challenges are compounded by inherent limitations related to dexterity, tremor and precision in positioning instruments. Given all these factors, we would like to propose robotised and fully automated intravitreal injections,” emphasised Prof. Maciej Wojtkowski.

The International Center for Translational Eye Research is a multidisciplinary initiative. It will foster the integration of various scientific studies in the field of applied optics, new technologies, engineering, chemistry, biophysics, biology and medicine. “All the goals we have taken on, if pursued by one team within the framework of a single research project, would take at least two decades to achieve. However, with a comprehensive research plan and a well-organised structure of all the teams involved in this research project, we are hoping to achieve said goals within 5 years,” concluded Prof. Maciej Wojtkowski.

Prof. Maciej Wojtkowski, Ph.D. hab., (born in 1975) is a physicist specialising in applied optics, as well as medical and experimental physics. His scientific career began at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń. This was where he defended his Master's thesis (at the Faculty of Physics, Astronomy and Informatics), and then the Doctoral and Habilitation theses (both degrees were conferred by the Institute of Physics, at the Faculty of Physics, Astronomy and Informatics). Between 1998 and 1999 he was employed as a research fellow with the University of Vienna, Austria, and between 2003 and 2005 with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the United States. He has also completed several scientific internships, including at the University of Kent in Canterbury, the United Kingdom, at the University of Vienna, Austria, at the University of Western Australia in Perth, and at the New England Eye Center in Boston, the United States. Since 2016 he has chaired the Department of Physical Chemistry of Biological Systems at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. He was elected Chair of that Department in an international competition held within the ERA Chairs grant. He has authored over 160 scientific publications, as well as several patents and patent applications. His works have been published in the following magazines: “Ophthalmology,” “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” “Nature Medicine,” “Optics Express,” “Journal of Biomedical Optics” and “Optics Letters.” He has designed, inter alia, an optical tomograph used for non-invasive contact-free eye examinations. In 2012 this invention received the FNP Award in the field of mathematical, physical and engineering sciences, often referred to as the Polish Nobel Prize. The tomograph prototypes developed by Prof. Wojtkowski have formed the basis for constructing numerous devices currently in use in ophthalmology clinics and rooms all over the world. Recently, the optical tomography method has been employed in cardiac diagnostics to detect ischaemic heart disease.

Prof. Krzysztof Palczewski, Ph.D. hab., (born in 1957) is a biochemist and a world-famous expert in visual biochemistry. He began his scientific career in Wrocław, completing chemical studies at the University of Wrocław and earning his Ph.D. degree at the Wrocław University of Technology. His Doctoral thesis won awards from both the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Education. Between 1986 and 1989 he was employed with the University of Florida in Gainesville, the United States, and between 1990 and 1992 with the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, the United States, where he launched his own laboratory. For 13 years (between 1992 and 2005) he conducted scientific studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, the United States, combining scientific work with diversified managerial functions. Between 2005 and 2018 he managed the Pharmacology Department at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the United States, leading a research team of over twenty scientists. Currently, he is employed with the Medical School at the University of California in Irvine, the United States. Prof. Palczewski has authored more than 500 scientific papers published in the leading magazines, including “Science,” “Nature” and “Molecular Cell”, as well as over 10 patents and patent applications. His major achievements include crystallising and describing the structure and function of rhodopsin, as well as discovering the mechanisms leading to retinal degeneration and, in consequence, to vision loss. In 2012, in recognition of these discoveries, the Foundation for Polish Science granted him the FNP Award in the field of life and earth sciences. Prof. Palczewski has also received an array of American awards, including the Humboldt Research Award for Senior U.S. Scientists (2000), the Friedenwald Award (2014), Maurice Saltzman Award (2014) and Beckman-Argyros Award in Vision Research (2014). In 2011 he received the Knight Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. Since 2015 he has been a foreign member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences.