When our car does not work, we take it to the mechanic. The mechanic needs to know first how the car is built in order to be able to repair it.
The human body is much more complex than a car but, in a similar fashion, we need to understand how it works in order to improve its health. Dr. Wei is working on unraveling scientific mysteries of how our eyes, specifically our retinas are formed during our development.
He is currently analyzing the functions of several genes in retinal development.
A healthy and functional retina is composed of several layers of cells. Cells are the building blocks of tissues. There are many types of cells in our body; each of them has distinct functions. For example, the photoreceptor cells in the retina regulate the release of their neurotransmitters in response to light signals. These neurotransmitters relay the signals to the next tier of nerve cells in the signal-transmitting chain. The various cells in the retina have to be organized in a specific manner to enable proper transmission of signals to our brains.
Dr. Wei’s research is aimed at understanding how retinal cells are organized during the development of a fetus. He hopes to understand how certain blinding diseases, such as Retinitis Pigmentosa, affect the organization and survival of retinal cells. Understanding this process can potentially lead to treatments for these diseases.
Why do we research the zebra fish?
The University of Pittsburgh houses more than 10,000 tanks with Zebrafish, one of the largest colonies in the world. Researchers choose to study the zebra fish because:
- the general structure and function of fish retina are similar to those of humans
- knowledge learned by studying the zebra fish can be applied to human retinal development and medicine
- functions of newly identified human genes can be studied in zebra fish
- effectiveness of certain treatments can be studied in zebra fish
We don’t know yet how the organization of these photoreceptors is achieved during development. Dr. Wei is investigating the function of Crumbs/Nok complex-mediated differential adhesion for photoreceptor organization. This study will likely help understand the causes of certain diseases like Retinitis Pigmentosa and Leber’s congenital amaurosis, in which the Crumbs gene is affected.