Professor Fights Disease that Destroys Vision

Dimitrios Morikis, a professor of bioengineering, will use $100,000 grant to develop techniques to combat age-related macular degeneration

Dimitrios Morikis, professor of bioengineering

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (—A professor at the University of California, Riverside Bourns College of Engineering has received a $100,000 grant to develop a new technique to fight a disease that gradually destroys vision.

Dimitrios “Dimitri” Morikis, a professor of bioengineering, and Lincoln Johnson, the director of the Center for the Study of Macular Degeneration at the University of California, Santa Barbara, received the one-year grant from the Beckman Initiative for Macular Research in Irvine to fight age-related macular degeneration.

Age-related macular degeneration, which afflicts mainly the elderly population, starts with a black spot on the macula, the central portion of the retina, continues with gradual loss of central vision, and eventually progresses to blindness.

“This is a devastating disease that disables people from performing normal tasks,” Morikis said.

The disease is a leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 years of age and older. It affects more than 1.75 million people in the United States, according to the National Eye Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. Owing to the rapid aging of the population, this number is expected to increase to almost 3 million by 2020.

There are treatments for slowing the progression of age-related macular degeneration, but none of them offer a cure.

One drug target for age-related macular degeneration is a portion of our immune system called the complement system, which is genetically predisposed to the disease. Complement system helps or “complements” the ability of antibodies and phagocytic cells, a type of white blood cell, to clear infectious agents or germs from an organism.

Morikis has researched the design of complement system inhibitors for almost 15 years. This includes participation in the development of peptides from the compstatin family, which are potential therapeutics for age-related macular degeneration.

For the current project, Morikis has teamed up with Johnson because of his extensive background in retinal cell biology and age-related macular degeneration. He has developed a biologically relevant system to test the effects of complement system activation on retinal pigmented epithelial cells.

The Morikis team will do computational modeling, which involves studying the behavior of a complex system by computer simulation, and virtual screening, a computational technique to access large libraries of chemical structures to identify structures likely to bind to a drug target.

The Johnson group will perform the experimental testing using human retinal cell assays and functional assays. An assay is a procedure in molecular biology for testing or measuring the activity of a drug or biochemical in an organism or biological sample.

The researchers envision that the work will provide the springboard for the generation of new inhibitors of the complement system, which, potentially and upon further optimization, will have a direct impact in treating age-related macular degeneration, as well as for mechanistic understanding of the role of complement system in the disease.

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