New discoveries aid understanding of the visual system

April 13, 2022
The AOA’s Investigator Initiated Research Award recipient is working to identify the role a specific protein plays in lens cells—and how it could affect people with Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts and myopia. Learn about the research and how you can apply for research support from the AOA.
Timothy Plageman Jr., Ph.D.

Photography by Tom McKenzie

Excerpted from page 56 of the March/April 2022 edition of AOA Focus.

Timothy Plageman Jr., Ph.D., associate professor at The Ohio State University College of Optometry, is the recipient of the AOA’s Investigator Initiated Research Award. This award is intended to support innovative, independent research relative to the continuum of eye and vision care.

Learn more about Dr. Plageman’s research.

Why did you pursue this line of research?

As a cell and developmental biologist, I have had a long-standing interest in understanding the function of protein complexes that mediate adhesion between cells during the development and physiology of the visual system. This is an important subject of investigation because adhesion between cells of the lens is thought to be essential to maintain tissue transparency and refract light. By studying lens cell adhesion, we could ascertain why these functions fail and cause the lens to become opaque during cataract rogression.

What is the premise for your research?

Recently, we discovered that a particular gene that encodes a cell adhesion protein (called ARVCF) is required to maintain transparency of the lens with age in mice. As it turns out, mutations in a distinct but very similar gene with a different name (CTNND2) are associated with cortical cataracts and myopia in people, but its role in the lens has not yet been determined. We plan to identify the role this protein plays in lens cells.

How can this data help inform our understanding of eye disease?

We were surprised to find that the CTNND2 protein is only found in a specialized adhesion structure that forms at the conjunction of three distinct lens cells. Because of CTNND2’s association with lens disorders, it demonstrates that this adhesion structure may not function normally and may underlie the etiology of cataracts and/or myopia.

Why is it important for optometry to be involved in basic research?

Elucidating the mechanisms and processes that underlie how the visual system functions serves as a basis for advances in biomedicine that can help protect and improve vision.

How far off is the immediate clinical impact of any findings?

The clinical impact of basic science research is always difficult to predict. However, the discoveries made from this research can not only aid our understanding of the visual system but also increase our knowledge of other scientific and clinical areas. For example, because disruptions to CTNND2 have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, as well as cataracts and myopia, the results from this study have the potential to inform us how it functions in cells of the brain and the pathophysiology of dementia and other types of neurological disorders.

AOA Investigator Initiated Research Award

Apply for the AOA’s Investigator Initiated Research Award.
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