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Light-sensitive photoswitches could restore sight to those with macular degeneration

A research center newly created by the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) aims to put light-sensitive switches in the body's cells that can be flipped on and off as easily as a remote control operates a TV.

Optical switches like these could trigger a chemical reaction, initiate a muscle contraction, activate a drug or stimulate a nerve cell - all at the flash of a light.

One major goal of the UC Berkeley-LBNL Nanomedicine Development Center is to equip cells of the retina with photoswitches, essentially making blind nerve cells see, restoring light sensitivity in people with degenerative blindness such as macular degeneration.

"We're asking the question, 'Can you control biological nanomolecules - in other words, proteins - with light?'" said center director and neurobiologist Ehud Y. Isacoff, professor of molecular and cell biology and chair of the Graduate Group in Biophysics at UC Berkeley. "If we can control them by light, then we could develop treatments for eye or skin diseases, even blood diseases, that can be activated by light. This challenge lies at the frontier of nanomedicine."

The research got off the ground this month thanks to a $6 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), part of a nanomedicine initiative within NIH's Roadmap for Medical Research. The initiative, which has funded eight Nanomedicine Development Centers around the country, including one last year at UCSF that involves UC Berkeley collaborators, is designed to "take cutting edge technology from one branch of science - nanotechnology - and apply it to another - medicine," according to Isacoff.

The nanoscience breakthrough at the core of the research was developed at UC Berkeley and LBNL over the past several years by neuroscientist Richard Kramer, professor of molecular and cell biology, Dirk Trauner, professor of chemistry, and Isacoff - all three members of the Phys
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Source:University of California - Berkeley


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