Published October 24, 2016
Michael H. Farkas, PhD, who joined the Department of Ophthalmology as an assistant professor in July, has been named a 2016 Emerging Vision Scientist by the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR).
Instituted in 2015, the Emerging Vision Scientists program is a select class of 22 young investigators — reflecting the breadth of basic and clinical vision research from across the United States — who have not yet received their first investigator-initiated grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Awardees provided on-camera interviews about their research for a summary video and displayed posters of their work during a September reception hosted by NAEVR in Washington, D.C.
They also visited Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress or their staffs and advocate for continued research funding.
The UB ophthalmology department nominated Farkas for the Emerging Vision Scientist program while he was still at Harvard Medical School serving as an instructor of ophthalmology.
“I was honored that the department showed so much enthusiasm and support for me, as I was nominated and notified of the award two months before my official start date at UB,” Farkas says.
James D. Reynolds, MD, professor and chair of ophthalmology, says Farkas is adding to an already impressive research career.
“Dr. Farkas has had stellar training. He has proven his talent for creative research as a Harvard postdoc,” Reynolds says. “The NAEVR award is a testament to that.”
Farkas studies novel gene therapy strategies for inherited blindness, which is caused by mutations in genes that are important for retinal function.
While these diseases are considered rare, Farkas notes, they affect hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and millions worldwide.
“Currently, no therapies are commercially available to treat these patients,” he says. “However, the eye is one of the most suitable organs for gene therapy, where a correct copy of the affected gene is packaged into a virus, and the virus delivers the gene to the affected cells.”
In fact, Farkas says, a gene therapy for one type of inherited blindness has completed clinical trials showing that it is safe and can, at a minimum, delay disease onset.
“Since the virus for which we package genes has a limited ‘cargo’ capacity, some of the genes are too large and cannot be used in this manner,” he says. “I have identified smaller versions of some of the most common blindness genes, and we are working to characterize their function and determine their suitability as a therapy.”
Reynolds notes that it is a particularly exciting time in the field of vision science research.
“The potential of regenerative medicine is accelerating rapidly. Ophthalmology is at the forefront of this revolution, and it promises to remake the world.”
Farkas brings strong experience and expertise to the field, Reynolds says, adding: “We are confident he can help lead us in this new direction.”
And yet, such research cannot achieve its goals on talent and creativity alone, Reynolds points out.
“Pursuit of this research is costly and depends heavily on NIH funding. But every dollar invested in it will pay huge dividends in economic benefits as well as the health of our nation and world.”
NAEVR bridges the gap between vision scientists and lawmakers through education and lobbying, Farkas says.
“My interest was to learn more about the process, since obtaining sufficient research funding is ever-challenging, especially for young investigators. My goal was to give a voice to not only my research, but also to the Buffalo and New York State research community as a whole.”
During his Capitol Hill trip, Farkas met with the health care aides for U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Brian Higgins.
“We discussed the importance of federal funding to the local Buffalo economy. I emphasized that the more success we have at bringing in lab-sustaining funding, like NIH funding, the more people we can hire, specifically recent UB graduates.”
Farkas earned his doctoral degree in biological sciences at UB in 2009.
He has expertise in areas including bioinformatics, eukaryotic pathogenesis, gene expression, gene therapy, genomics and proteomics, molecular and cellular biology, molecular basis of disease, molecular genetics and stem cells.