New research focuses on poorly understood workings of the retina.
BOB CHOW IS FASCINATED
BY THE EYE, ITS SCIENTIFIC PUZZLE OF NERVE
cells and circuitry. It’s
a passion that began with his doctoral work at
New York University and grew during post-doc
research at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children.
The developmental biologist is a recent arrival
to campus and he’s building a new lab to
examine the retina, its construction, and the
molecular blueprint that may contribute to future
cures for genetic vision defects. He took time
to talk about his research with the Torch.
Torch: I couldn’t
help noticing your glasses. Just a coincidence
or is it an indication of a personal interest
in your research?
Bob Chow: No, that’s
just a coincidence. (Laughs.)
Kind of thought so, but had to ask. You mentioned
earlier that you really got interested in this
area during your doctoral work.
Once I developed an appreciation
for the developmental biology of the eye I
started really appreciating all of the defects
that have a genetic basis in a lot of the things
I was studying. So there arose a real connection
to human disorders, an additional reason for
studying what I’m
on cells in the retina that help transmit visual
signals to the brain. What intrigues you about
These cells are important
because not only do they transmit signals from
the photoreceptor cells but they also add an
extra dimension to the way these signals are
starting to understand a bit of their function
but we’re only at the tip of the iceberg.
The things that I’m studying now—bipolar
cells, and trying to integrate that with visual
signaling and retinal functioning and circuitry—are
things that people haven’t really started
looking at. People have either studied the developmental
aspects or the circuitry—I’m trying
to combine the two.
How has genomics opened the door to this type
Many of the genes had been individually isolated
in a painstaking manner. Now with the mouse and
human genome sequenced you can scan for anything
you want. It provides an invaluable tool that
we use on a daily basis. A lot of genetic disorders
affecting vision have been genetically mapped.
How widespread are
the disorders you’re
Twenty-seven per cent of human heritable disease
groups affect the eye and the reason for that
is because the eye is not an essential tissue.
We can live without it.
motivation for doing what you do?
It’s like a puzzle I’m trying to
solve. It’s like a mystery I’m trying
to unravel. I’m very interested in developmental
biology and all of the molecular aspects that
underlie the formation and function of the retina.
That, in and of itself isn’t a cure, but
it provides the understanding that is required
to implement the cure. If you’re going
to fix something you have to understand how it’s
You must be a patient guy.
You have to be patient
because the successes are measured in periods
of months and years. But once you start getting
interesting results, you really do feel that
eureka moment. It’s
exciting. Most people in the world won’t
appreciate it except for you. But it’s
So, when you’re
meeting people and they ask you what you do…
People always ask about
laser surgery, (laughs) something I’m
totally not qualified to address.
What are your biggest dreams for your research?
I think my most important
role is in the training of students or young
graduate students and post-docs. There are super
labs that have 30 or 40 people in them with post-docs
that might speak to their supervisor once or
twice a year. I don’t want that. I want
to do experiments alongside students—they’ll
learn better in that environment.
Bob Chow holds the Canada Research Chair in
Retinal and Early Eye Development.
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