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Grant supports groundbreaking vision research

by Mark Sullivan

Groundbreaking research in gene therapy being done by geneticist Rajendra Kumar-Singh at Tufts' Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences may one day save the sight of countless people facing vision loss or blindness.

This important work has been given a boost by the Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation, which pledged $500,000 to renovate lab space for Kumar-Singh's research into gene-based treatments for two leading causes of blindness, age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.

"We are going to be able to prevent blindness in millions of patients who otherwise are going to go blind," Kumar-Singh, an associate professor of ophthalmology, said. His team's innovative approach involves literally hijacking cold viruses to deliver healthy genes to counteract genetic mutations that cause the disorders.

Age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in Americans over the age of 65, affects some 13 million people. Retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, affecting one in 3,000 people, is the most common form of inherited blindness in America.

"What we are doing is the most cutting-edge research in medicine," Kumar-Singh said. "Gene therapy is the next frontier in clinical medicine." Within the next decade or two, gene therapy will be applied in clinical treatment for hundreds of diseases, he predicted, and Tufts will be at the forefront of advances in the area.

As of February, the Kumar-Singh group's research is being carried out in a spacious, state-of-the-art laboratory on the seventh floor of the renovated South Cove Building at 55 Kneeland Street on the Boston health-sciences campus. He and ophthalmology colleague Professor Noorjahan Panjwani share an entire floor.

The Fireman Foundation's half-million dollar gift funded the lab construction. The support comes at a time government funding for scientific research has tightened, and universities find themselves challenged to find alternate sources of funding for research.

"Private foundation dollars are all the more valuable and helpful in the current climate," said Kumar-Singh. "The support is important because it allows us to expand the net of questions we may pose and to expedite the development of therapies for these blinding diseases."

Kumar-Singh's arrival at Tufts in 2006 was welcomed as a coup. His recruitment is expected to lead to important translational research opportunities in regenerative medicine and sensory neuroscience, research priorities at the Medical School.

Of Indian descent, Kumar-Singh was raised in Ireland, and took his PhD from the University of Dublin. He did his postdoctoral training at the University of Michigan, and has held faculty positions at UCLA School of Medicine and the University of Utah.

"I have been very excited to be here," Kumar-Singh said. "One of the great things about Tufts is the environment of collaboration that has allowed me to expand my research by interacting with people in totally different areas. The type of interaction fostered at Tufts doesn't exist everywhere."