Anna La Torre grew up in Campdevanol, a small village close to the Pyrenees in Catalonia. She enrolled in the University of Barcelona to study biology, and began her scientific career driven by curiosity. Specifically, how organisms build themselves from a single cell.
Today, Dr. La Torre is an Associate Professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy at the School of Medicine at University of California, Davis—and a member of Glaucoma Research Foundation’s third Catalyst for a Cure (CFC) consortium.
Dr. La Torre joined the new team in January 2019, along with esteemed colleagues Xin Duan, PhD (Weill Institute for Neurosciences, University of California, San Francisco); Yang Hu, MD, PhD (Stanford University School of Medicine); and Derek Welsbie, MD, PhD (Shiley Eye Institute, University of California, San Diego).
The consortium is focused on vision restoration. Their goal is to better understand what specifically causes vision loss in glaucoma, and then identify targeted interventions for protecting and restoring the neurons responsible for vision. For Dr. La Torre, the experience has been like none other.
“Glaucoma Research Foundation has established a radically novel approach,” she says. “They understand that restoring vision is an extremely challenging goal that requires a combination of different skills and coordinated ingeniousness. My teammates and I were selected because of our different expertise, and we were given the task of developing a research plan together. Bringing together multidisciplinary expertise and different perspectives has allowed us to build a project that none of us could do alone, to think outside the box and to aim higher.”
Research aside, Dr. La Torre has discovered other rewarding benefits of being part of the Glaucoma Research Foundation family.
“Being a part of the CFC has given me the opportunity to interact with patients, families and donors,” she says. “As a scientist, I’ve spent most of my time in a laboratory performing experiments, devising strategies, and writing scientific articles, but at the end of the day, the patients are the real reason behind everything we do. Being part of this community has been incredibly inspiring and motivating.”
What are the highlights of your team’s first year of work?
Anna La Torre, PhD: I am happy to say that we have made progress on several fronts. Glaucoma is a disease that affects the retinal ganglion cells. As the disease progresses, the retinal ganglion cells degenerate and eventually die, severing the connection between the eye and the brain. One of the main goals of Catalyst for a Cure Vision Restoration Initiative is to restore this lost connection by promoting the re-growth of the optic nerve at earlier stages of the disease or by replacing the lost cells once the retinal ganglion cells have died.
To that end, we have developed a whole new set of cellular tools that will allow us to unmistakably assess whether our attempts to replace the degenerated retinal ganglion cells are successful. The technologies to transplant retinal ganglion cells are still in their infancy, and a lot of research is needed before we can translate this approach from the laboratory to the clinic. These technologies were pioneered by Jeffery L. Goldberg, PhD, a member of our CFC Scientific Advisory Board and one of four principal investigators of the Catalyst for a Cure Biomarker Initiative. We are building on his findings, trying to identify the barriers that prevent the transplanted cells from connecting with the other cells in the eye, and our ongoing work is designed to overcome these obstacles.
Interestingly, in a new study led by Dr. Welsbie, in collaboration with all the CFC vision restoration scientists, we have identified a set of drugs that are able to protect the retinal ganglion cells after damage and, even more importantly, these molecules can also boost the re-growth of the damaged optic nerve. This is the first time a single intervention can do both—protect the damaged retinal ganglion cells and re-grow the optic nerve—and we hope this line of research will lead to promising clinical applications in the near future.
Was there anything that surprised you in your first year?
It was a pleasant surprise to discover how easy and fun it is to collaborate with my teammates. We have frequent meetings and we constantly work on shared documents to develop our research plan. I am humbled to be part of this group. They are all incredibly talented, but also generous and supportive. We have joined forces, and this approach helps us maintain the focus on the bigger picture.
What are your team’s next steps?
We are going to pursue the two lines of research: because of our work this last year, we are now in a unique position to advance the technologies for retinal ganglion cell replacement. We will test several experimental conditions with the goal of improving the efficiency of the cell transplants. Similarly, we will follow-up the molecular approach to protect the cells from degeneration and extend axons. And we will also combine these two strategies, treating the cells we are transplanting with the drug that we now know can protect the cells from damage and enhance the nerve growth. We’re hoping this approach will improve the transplantation efficiency, bringing us one step closer to vision restoration.
Do you have any personal connections to people with glaucoma?
I don’t have any family members suffering from glaucoma, but my iaia, my grandmother, was visually impaired. She lost her sight during the Spanish Civil War when she was just a child. Growing up, I lived with my grandparents. My iaia was always the kind of woman who found strength and joie de vivre even in the most adverse circumstances. Her story was never a sad one. I see the same strength in the Glaucoma Research Foundation community.
Glaucoma Research Foundation’s goal of restoring vision is ambitious. What do you think the chances are of achieving this goal in the next several years? And how do you handle the weight and expectations of that mission?
That is a great question! This is a challenging enterprise. Scientific research works by means of trial and error and because of that, it is never a direct and clear path. It is difficult to predict, not only for ourselves, but for the whole scientific community, how long it will take to achieve the goal of vision restoration. A great deal of research is needed, but I am very hopeful we can have a clinical intervention in 10 years from now. This will make a huge difference in the lives of glaucoma patients.
Posted on October 14, 2020