UVic Torch -- Fall 2004
Autumn 2004,
Volume 25, Number 2

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Origin of the Eye - Photography by VINCE KLASSEN Origin of the Eye
Bob Chow uses developmental biology to clarify our understanding of the retina, its makeup, and genetic vision disorders.
Photography by VINCE KLASSEN

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 studying.

You’re focusing on cells in the retina that help transmit visual signals to the brain. What intrigues you about them?

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 interpreted. We’re 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 of work?

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 investigating?

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.

What’s your 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 put together.

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 fun, still.

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 scientists—undergraduates, 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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