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Researcher Spotlight: Derek Welsbie, MD, PhD

Posted on December 03, 2021 by Glaucoma Research Foundation
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Dr. Derek Welsbie’s patients know him as a skilled and compassionate glaucoma doctor. What they may not know is that he’s also a scientist and principal investigator for Glaucoma Research Foundation’s Steven and Michele Kirsch Catalyst for a Cure Vision Restoration Initiative.

As an Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of California San Diego’s Shiley Eye Institute, Welsbie said, “I’m motivated by my patients who ask me what can be done to regain their vision lost from glaucoma.” While there are many excellent glaucoma treatments, Welsbie always wished he could do more to prevent patients from losing vision and even bring back vison for his patients who had lost it. Funding from Glaucoma Research Foundation and the establishment of the Kirsch CFC Vision Restoration Initiative is giving him the chance to accomplish just that.

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For the past three years, Welsbie has been a valuable member of the Catalyst for a Cure (CFC) team, collaborating with Xin Duan, PhD (University of California, San Francisco), an expert in optic nerve regeneration; Anna La Torre, PhD (University of California, Davis), an expert in developmental and stem cell biology; and Yang Hu, MD, PhD (Stanford University School of Medicine), an expert in glaucoma models and CRISPR gene editing. Welsbie’s expertise is in high-throughput genetics, using automated equipment and screening technology to identify the genes responsible for nerve cell death in glaucoma and other neurodegenerative disorders.

“In my lab, we use blood cells from glaucoma patients to make stem cells and then retinal ganglion cells—the optic nerve cells that are injured in glaucoma,” Welsbie says. “This way, we can study which genes are responsible for the health of the nerve cells and which genes improve our ability to make new nerve cells.”

“Creating a therapy to restore vision is something science has been working on for 50 years,” he says. “And what's tremendously exciting is that there's been more progress in just the last five years than the preceding 45 years combined.”

Research progress aside, Welsbie is quick to point out that much of the credit for this progress goes to the many Glaucoma Research Foundation donors who fund the CFC team’s critical research. “The kind of research we're doing now is only possible because of the generous support of donors,” he says. “They’re the ones who make possible this unique collaboration to restore vision.”

Welsbie earned his degrees in medicine and molecular biology from the University of California, Los Angeles. While there, he developed new drugs to treat cancer. He soon translated that experience into ground-breaking efforts to identify new potential drugs to treat glaucoma—and caught the attention of GRF. In 2014, when Welsbie was an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins University Wilmer Eye Institute, Glaucoma Research Foundation awarded him the Shaffer Prize for Innovative Glaucoma Research.

Last reviewed on December 03, 2021

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