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Major USU Grant Aims To Increase Understanding Of Specialized Retina Cells

Center for Disease Control

Our eyes contain small, complex cells with many important jobs. A new major grant at Utah State University aims to increase our understanding of one of these specific types of cells in our eyes - retinal pigmented epithelium cells, also known as RPE cells. 

"The retina is the part of our eye that allows us to see and it has all of our photoreceptors, which are these super specialized cells that see color, see shadows, see darkness, and so when things go wrong in the back of the eye, in the retina that means we cannot see anymore," said Elizabeth Vargis, an assistant professor in biological engineering at Utah State University. 

Vargis received a major grant of more than $400,000 from the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, to study how specific retinal cells respond to each other.

"The RPE cells are retinal pigmented epithelium cells. They are in a single layer at the back of our eye and they are right between the retinal blood supply and the photoreceptors," Vargis said. "So when they start misbehaving, bad things can happen and we want to know what causes the RPEs to misbehave."

According to Vargis the RPE cells act as janitors properly clearing things that accumulate in our eyes.

"Now they can literally be janitors and if they aren’t working properly they might sweep things under the rug which can cause tears in the retina which can cause your photoreceptors to then die which causes impairments to your vision, so basically you have areas that you cannot see as well," Vargis said. 

Through this grant, over the next three years, Vargis and her collaborators hope to increase foundational understanding of these RPE cells.

"So, first of all, it is just understanding how these RPE cells work and putting more of an emphasis on their importance in retinal disease, but the second thing is to look at precursors, so something that medical providers might be able to detect before it becomes this impaired vision," Vargis said. 

Future applications of this research could include earlier diagnosis of retinal disease, potentially preventing vision loss.