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Dr. Przemyslaw (Mike) Sapieha, Interim Director, Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont; Canada Research Chair in Retinal Cell Biology, and Full Professor of Ophthalmology, University of Montreal

Research highlights/discoveries:

  • Exploring a way to wake up dormant neurons in the eyes of people with diabetic retinopathy to improve or restore their vision

Dr. Przemyslaw (Mike) Sapieha at a glance:

  • Appointed Chief Scientific Advisor, Unity Biotechnology (2021)
  • Elected to the College of the Royal Society of Canada (2019)
  • Received Cogan Award from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (2019)
  • Received a Diabetes Investigator Award, Diabetes Canada (2018)
  • Appointed Canada Research Chair in Retinal Cell Biology (2010)

How did you become interested in research?

My parents are both scientists and a great inspiration. I grew up having scientific discussions around the dinner table from a young age. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I had an opportunity to join a biotech company where I worked on gene therapy for cancer treatment, [which is about] using our body’s genes to fix sick cells. This led me to pursue graduate school in gene therapy, which was just taking off at the time. The eye was the best organ to explore gene therapy because it is a closed compartment into which we can inject viruses and follow their trajectories. Through this work, I developed a real liking for the retina.

How does that relate to diabetes?

In people with diabetes, diabetic retinopathy [or eye damage] is a major complication. Blood vessels that supply oxygen and nutrients to the retina [the sheet of nerve cells at the back of the eye] become leaky and break down. Then nerve cells, or neurons in the retina, begin to stop working as well as they used to. I wanted to look at how these neurons were reacting to diabetes and contributing to the disease. Ultimately, we wanted to know whether we could intervene and prevent further eye damage.

What have you discovered?

During diabetic retinopathy, certain neurons in the eyes go to ‘sleep’ and produce molecules that reduce vision. Now we’re trying to figure out if we can effectively wake up the neurons to prevent future eye issues, such as blurry vision and even loss of sight.

What is your ultimate goal?

Eventually, the goal is to develop new, effective treatments for retinopathy to improve vision in all people, those with and without diabetes.

In diabetic retinopathy, it can sometimes take 20 years before you start to lose your sight, and the hope is that we can help prevent vision loss early on.

The last word

“Dr. Sapieha’s research targets molecules produced by stressed neurons that contribute to diabetic retinopathy. His work has the real potential to improve eye health for people with diabetes, which could be very significant for improving the lives of Canadians and people around the world.” — Dr. Seema Nagpal, vice president, Science & Policy, Diabetes Canada

Did you know?

2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin. Today, more Canadians have diabetes than ever before. Diabetes or prediabetes affects one in three Canadians. One in two young adults will develop diabetes in their remaining lifetime. We cannot wait another 100 years to End Diabetes. Visit 100 Years of Insulin to learn more, including how you can support those living with or at risk for the disease.

Author: Rosalind Stefanac

Category Tags: Research;

Region: National

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