Insight into the Eye

George Ayoub loves puzzles, and he is working on a big one: How does glaucoma cause loss of vision and can this be prevented?

A specialist in cellular neuroscience, George has conducted research on the retina during his eight years as a Westmont biology professor.

In one sense, he was born to this work. His father lost much of his vision after contracting an infection as a high school student. “When I was a child, it became evident to me that sight was a critical sense,” he recalls.

During his years at Amherst College and his graduate studies at Baylor College of Medicine, George grew more and more interested in the cellular level of life.

“It was a very complicated puzzle, with lots of parts to fit together,” he notes. “So many scientific principles come together in understanding how the cells of our bodies function: biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics.”

In particular, he was drawn to brain cells. Intrigued by how the brain processes information, George began studying the eye, the most accessible part of the brain.

“I have been primarily interested in learning how the eye works, and how it tells the brain what we see. To answer the questions I have, I devised a variety of tools to examine the cells of the retina.

“One of these is a technique to measure the communication between neural cells. This communication uses chemicals called neurotransmitters, and I devised a way to observe neurotransmitters in the eye,” he notes.

In using these tools, George discovered that the information he collects has implications for the study of glaucoma.

“We found evidence that strongly supports a new theory of glaucoma: the high pressure in the eye stimulates a chain of cellular events among a group of retinal cells that results in the death of the cells that form the optic nerve,” George explains.

“Our research is demonstrating that glaucoma may act like a slow, spreading stroke of the retina. But what gives hope in this is that we have a way to study what happens in glaucoma, as well as a means to test different drugs to see if they can prevent the pressure-induced damage.

“Since we can mimic the conditions of glaucoma and can directly monitor the activity of the retinal cells, we are now in a good position to use the tools I’ve developed and try various drugs that may be able to block the vision loss at different points along the chain of events.”

George is excited that the research he pursues challenges him intellectually and encompasses several fields of science — and could yield tremendous value to society. “I’ve enjoyed the reward of puzzling many things out along the way, and seeing some of my ideas come to fruition,” he says.

Thanks to current funding from NIH, the American Health Assistance Foundation, Fight for Sight, Santa Barbara’s Cottage Hospital, and several individuals, George employs a part-time technician to work on the project year-round. The college also pays students  to do research with him during the summer when he can devote all his time to the work.

He collaborates with professors at UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara, where he has a faculty appointment in the neuroscience research institute. He also works with an ophthalmologist.

One aspect of the project has surprised him: the amount of e-mail he receives from glaucoma patients seeking his help. While he is unable to assist them now, he hopes his work will someday make a big difference in their lives.

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