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Jun 28, 2021


profile image of Dr. Sarah Macfarlane

Dr. Sarah McFarlane, University of Calgary, is studying how retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells move with the hope that it may be used to increase the success of cell replacement therapy for age-related macular degeneration (AMD). We caught up with Dr. McFarlane to learn more about this research…

Tell us about your research program.

For many years we have been interested in what controls cell movements during the development of the embryonic eye. For our studies we use an animal model called a zebrafish. The position or location of a cell in the developing eye is everything, because it determines what differentiation factors a cell encounters and what cells it can connect to and communicate with. So ultimately, location determines a cell’s identity and role in the neural circuits that create vision.

We can learn a lot about what molecules influence cell movement in the embryo and then apply this information to the injured or diseased retina in order to replace lost cells and neural connections.

What were the key discoveries from your FBC funded project?

With Fighting Blindness Canada’s support, we looked at what controls the movements and position of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), a key tissue that provides critical support for the light sensing cells of the retina, the photoreceptors. AMD involves the degeneration of RPE cells which can then lead to damage and death of photoreceptors. Cell replacement therapies for AMD are considering transplanting healthy RPE to replace damaged RPE cells. To be successful, these transplanted RPE cells will have to migrate to the sites of RPE damage.

This project has led us to publish two studies where we identified how RPE cells move during normal zebrafish embryonic eye development, and a key molecule that promotes and directs these movements, information we hope can be used to ensure the success of cell replacement therapy for AMD. We now will move to a RPE injury model to see if this same molecule controls RPE movements and behaviour after injury, a situation that more closely resembles what happens in the eye when someone has AMD.

What impact has FBC donor funding had on your research?

This funding came at a key time in the laboratory and allowed me to continue to support talented and highly qualified personnel on this innovative project that moved my research in a new but risky direction. Funding not only supported my team’s exciting vision research, but allowed us to leverage funds towards successfully obtaining longer term support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

What keeps you motivated outside the lab?

Being in Calgary so close to wonderful mountains, one realizes how important the sense of sight is to one’s ability to appreciate and explore one’s environment. I am fortunate to be able to hike in one of the most beautiful spots in the world. I know how lucky I am to be able to appreciate the gorgeous scenery and realize how important it is that we maintain and restore vision so that others can also get to appreciate their own place of beauty.

Dr. McFarlane’s study is supported by funding from the Arthur Child Foundation.

Learn more about FBC funded researchers and their work.

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