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Dr. Jessica Morgan

Dr. Morgan Envisions the Future of Optic Research

By Melissa Homsher

Scheie Vision Spring 2015

Millions of people around the world experience vision loss and blindness from inherited retinal diseases. Although these diseases are rare, many have little or no treatment available and can lead to permanent blindness.  

When a genetic error occurs, the cells in the back of the eye, which are responsible for perceiving visual signals and transmitting them to the brain, may develop incorrectly, function ineffectively, or even die.  Because these changes occur in microscopic cell layers, it is difficult for physicians to determine which parts of the eye are affected and whether a treatment worked for individual patients. Dr. Jessica Morgan, Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology, is hoping to answer these questions through her research.

After completing her Bachelor’s degree at Wake Forest University in physics and mathematics, Dr. Morgan went on to earn her MS and  PhD in Optical Engineering from the University of Rochester. Since then, she has worked as a Research Associate for the University of Pennsylvania and was recently promoted to Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology. 

Dr. Morgan’s research focuses on the integration of cutting-edge technology into clinical care. Specifically, she uses high-resolution adaptive optics imaging to study the cells of the retina in patients with blinding diseases. 

“The idea is that we can study the pathogenesis of retinal disease by taking high resolution images of individual cells over time,” she explained. “This way, when we can physically see the rod and cone cells responsible for the first step in the visual process, we can study disease progression at the cellular level.” 

For patients suffering from inherited retinal diseases such as choroideremia and Stargardt’s disease, this type of technology could change the way we diagnose and treat their illness. The technology also may have important applications for age-related macular degeneration.

“Many of these diseases currently do not have a known treatment, but we are entering an era where cellular and molecular treatments are possible,” Dr. Morgan said.  “High resolution imaging allows us to study the effectiveness of treatment at the level of individual cellular structure and function.”

Dr. Morgan, in collaboration with Dr. Jean Bennett, is using this precise technology to study microscopic changes in retinal cell layers in patients receiving gene therapy for choroideremia. This Phase I trial, available only at the University of Pennsylvania, replaces a defective retinal protein. Physicians hope that gene therapy can prevent cone cell death and restore the retinal pigment epithelium, which nourishes and supports photoreceptor cells. 

choroideremia runs in families, and patients travel from all over the world—as far as Belgium and Iraq—to participate in research studies for this condition. Dr. Morgan is vital to the study of disease progression and the effectiveness of gene therapy intervention, as she is responsible for imaging the retinal cells to assess their structure and function before and after experimental treatment. In the future, researchers hope to apply this same technology to other blinding diseases.

“We have already seen success in another inherited retinal degenerative disease, Leber congenital amaurosis, using gene therapy. There are huge possibilities for the future of treatment in retinal disease,” Dr. Morgan explained. 

Dr. Morgan’s research paves the way for the understanding and development of these life-changing treatments.  As a whole, Scheie continues to make large strides in conducting ophthalmic research and changing the future of clinical care.

 
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