WVU researcher wins $1.6 million grant

Five-year, basic science study looks at retinal proteins 

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The National Institutes of Health has awarded a West Virginia University researcher $1.6 million over five years to study a protein that may be essential to sight.

Maxim Sokolov, Ph.D., a faculty member in the WVU Departments of Ophthalmology and Biochemistry, is studying the role of proteins scientists call “molecular chaperones” that help newly synthesized proteins mature properly. As in all the body’s cells, molecular chaperones function in the eye’s photoreceptors – photosensitive cells in the retina that are essential to sight – in ways that are not well understood.

“Photoreceptors are extremely important to vision,” Sokolov said. “Like any other brain cells or neurons, photoreceptors are not replenished throughout the body’s lifetime – they do not multiply or divide. You get a certain number when you are young, and you can only go down as you age. If we start losing them, we go blind.”

Chaperones appear to play a vital role in keeping photoreceptors functioning. Sokolov’s goal is to find out what chaperones do in photoreceptors and how they work.

“Some scientists think that if molecular chaperones don’t work well, many ‘young’ proteins grow up to be mis-educated –  or mis-folded, in scientific terms,” Sokolov explained. “Accumulated aberrant proteins predispose long-living cells, such as neurons, to degeneration. In the aging brain we are talking about neurodegenerative diseases; in the aging eye we are talking about progressive blindness.” 

Maxim Sokolov, Ph.D.

In mouse studies, Sokolov’s team has learned that healthy chaperone function is a key to the survival of photoreceptors. “We learned that suppression of chaperone in mouse photoreceptors is often very quickly followed by receptor death. This is in many ways a groundbreaking study. The ultimate goal will be to elucidate whether enhancing chaperone activity could protect photoreceptors, as well as other neurons, against aging.”

Sokolov plans to hire two new researchers for his lab with part of the grant money.

For information on the WVU Department of Ophthalmology see http://www.hsc.wvu.edu/som/eye/.


For more information:
Andrea Brunais, HSC News Service, 304-293-7087
ab: 09-21-09

Return To News Releases