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Nov 9, 2015

Teaching Scientists About the Research that Matters Most To You

Sean Jmaeff

People with vision loss are changing how scientists think about their research. This is one of the main reasons why we hold our annual conference: Vision Quest. Yes, Vision Quest is about bringing the latest research discoveries to people living with vision loss, but we also know that scientists have much to learn from the patients who they are trying to help.

Vision Quest changed the way FBC-funded scientist Jason Charish thinks about his research. For Jason, attending Vision Quest taught him “the need for new clinically approved therapies.” Because of Vision Quest, Jason is thinking about more than just the science; he’s also “thinking about new strategies to maximize the speed and likelihood of my findings eventually leading to funded clinical trials.” Jason is a student with Dr. Philippe Monnier at Toronto Western Hospital where he studies why eye cells die in degenerative eye diseases such as RP.

Research is a totally consuming activity. Indeed, people joke about scientists living in a bubble, isolated from the real world. This isolation is sometimes quite real. It’s not necessarily all bad because it helps them to maintain an intense level of focus, but it’s also important for scientists to keep the big picture in view.

Participating at Vision Quest, helps scientists to learn more from people living with vision loss. Scientists are experts at sharing their research findings with each other, but Vision Quest helps them to learn more about the research outcomes that matter most to patients. This is why we launched our inaugural Science Expo in 2015, which features posters made by FBC-funded scientists.

Little known fact: scientists make a lot of posters. Although these posters aren’t necessarily designed as home decor, they would brighten any wall because scientists have such beautiful data. This is especially true for vision scientists studying interstellar-looking eye cells, adorned with names like starburst amacrine cells. Posters are one of the key ways that scientists share their work with each other, so we asked FBC-funded scientists to design posters for Vision Quest. This way of sharing research discoveries is particularly valuable because it spurs a meaningful knowledge exchange between scientists and people living with vision loss.

We asked Sean Jmaeff from McGill University what he learned from sharing his poster at Vision Quest. He replied “it is often all too easy to lose track of the real impact of the work we perform. My time at Vision Quest gave me a sense of pride in my research. While there is still much work to be done, I am proud to be doing something that may contribute to improving the quality of life of those with blinding diseases.”

Sean works in the laboratory of FBC-funded scientist Dr. Uri Saragovi, where his research focuses on neuroprotective strategies for blinding diseases. He explained, “Since there are no effective treatments for many of these conditions, we need to explore new methods to protect retinal cells from death. Trophic factors are large proteins that can enhance cell survival, but they do not make effective drugs. Our lab screens and develops small drug-like molecules that mimic the action of trophic factors, with improved properties. The goal is to create new molecules that will be affordable, safe, and easily administered.” Fortunately, Dr. Saragovi and his team have some incredibly promising results. Currently, they are working on the final pre-clinical research so they can move into clinical trials.

Sean has a special interest in vision research because he lives with low vision as the result of developing open-angle glaucoma at a very young age. Sean described, “I feel quite lucky to have the opportunity to combine my passion for science with the chance to contribute to our understanding of visual diseases and how we may combat them.” Amazingly, Sean is not alone. Another FBC-funded scientist, Ruanne Lai, also lives with a vision disease: retinitis pigmentosa. If you live on the west coast of Canada, you can meet Ruanne at the Vancouver Vision Quest on Saturday, November 14.

The 2015 Science Expo is just one of the ways that we bring together FBC-funded researchers with people who are living with vision loss and blindness. Importantly, many of these affected people are also the donors who make the research possible. Our 2015 Vision Quest theme is building a better future because we believe that together we can drive impactful, sight-saving research from the laboratory into the clinic.

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