Unlikely Duo Collaborates on NIH Grant to Study Optic Nerve Stroke

The lunchtime musings of two graduate students from adjacent labs at the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute (ISCI) have led to the award of one of the Miller School’s more unusual NIH grants – for a $2.11 million study on how to improve neuron survival and function after optic nerve stroke using research already conducted on the heart.

It’s not just that the grantees – Jeffrey Goldberg, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of ophthalmology, who is an expert on the retina and glaucoma, and Michael Kapiloff, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine and pediatrics, who is a researcher in the Division of Cardiology – seem an unlikely pair.

They also wrote their request for “Signaling Scaffolds and Survival in Stroke” in a mere two weeks, and received the award on the first submission – all because grad students from each of their labs, who talk shop in the ISCI lunch room, concluded that the signaling function of proteins that Kapiloff had long studied in heart cells may have similar functions in central nervous system cells, including retinal ganglion cells in the eye.

When Jonathan “Yoni” Hertz, a Ph.D. student in the Goldberg lab, and Michael Kritzer-Cheren, an M.D./Ph.D. student in the Kapiloff lab, approached Goldberg and Kapiloff with their idea of applying Kapiloff’s heart studies to Goldberg’s research into the death of retinal ganglion cells – and the resulting loss of vision – after stroke, the investigators quickly realized they could start bridging a gap between their two fields. With the next NIH grant deadline just around the corner, they also knew they should begin right away.

“We tag teamed, working around the clock to start key experiments and write a proposal for an NIH grant deadline, which was within two weeks,’’ recalled Kapiloff, director of the Cardiac Signal Transduction and Cellular Biology Laboratory.

“We realized that indeed it was highly likely that these molecules that Michael has been studying all these years may be highly relevant to the survival of neurons,’’ Goldberg added. “In fact, we tested that idea in the two weeks before the grant was due, and saw some amazing preliminary results to suggest we were on to something important.’’

Both Kapiloff and Goldberg credit their collaboration to the open labs and scientists from multiple disciplines ISCI Director Joshua Hare, M.D., the Louis Lemberg Professor of Medicine, has assembled at the interdisciplinary Institute, located on the 8th and 9th floors of the Biomedical Research Building.

“If my student and his student hadn’t been across the hall from each other, they would not have talked, and if Jeff hadn’t been literally around the corner, I probably wouldn’t have said, ‘Let’s discuss this possibility,’’’ Kapiloff said.

“It’s a whole new perspective – studying molecules that have only been studied in the heart for a currently untreatable disease process that ruins people’s vision,’’ Goldberg added. “It’s cross-fertilization across disciplines and it will almost certainly turn out to be a shared biology across organ systems.’’

Hare says he’s very proud of the researchers, but can take no credit for them. “I just brought them together and got out of their way,’’ he said, noting that Goldberg and Kapiloff share another seminal milestone: They were inducted into the American Society for Clinical Investigation, one of the nation’s oldest and most respected medical honor societies, at the same time.

“So,’’ Hare quipped, “theirs is a match made in heaven.’’

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