Steven Fliesler’s career in ophthalmic research stems from two passions: a love of exploring the unexplored and a drive to understand—and help cure—serious eye diseases.
So when he learned about a strange relationship between a common human protein and age-related macular degeneration—the leading cause of blindness among older Americans—he knew he had to dig deeper.
What was baffling were claims that a protein called apolipoprotein-E4 (ApoE4) acted as both a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and a negative risk factor for age-related macular degeneration.
“That’s what drew me into this,” says Fliesler. “Biology is usually conserved—if you have a molecule that functions one way in one part of the body, then chances are it’s going to have the same or similar function in some other part of the body.” Since the brain and the retina are just different parts of the nervous system, Fliesler reasons that a molecule like ApoE4 should behave the same in both tissues.
Due in part to his work, researchers are closer to unraveling the interaction of these risk factors. Using gene-altering techniques, his team found that mice producing Apo-E4, which differs from other forms of the protein by only two amino acids, exhibit stronger cone function, despite declining eyesight from other genetic and possibly environmental factors.
Also benefiting from Fliesler’s research are individuals with Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that profoundly affects the nervous system, including eyesight. By creating the first successful animal model of this syndrome—using drug-induced methods rather than genetic modification—his team found that a high-cholesterol diet seems to slow the onset and severity of blindness in the animal model.
“Cholesterol supplementation is the current therapy of choice in treating Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome patients, but the treatment is not completely effective,” Fliesler says. Additional studies in his lab suggest that antioxidants plus cholesterol might provide a better therapeutic treatment.
Fliesler joined UB’s faculty because he wanted to contribute to the fast-developing Department of Ophthalmology. In addition to his appointment as professor, he is vice chair and director of research and holds the Meyer Richwun Endowed Chair in Ophthalmology. He is also a part-time health systems specialist with the VA Medical Center.
“After I met the department chair and faculty, I felt this would be a good place for me to continue my career,” he says.
Fliesler’s recruitment was crucial to the formation of the new Vision Research Center at the Buffalo VA Medical Center and the research program at UB’s Ira G. Ross Eye Institute, says James D. Reynolds, professor and chair of the ophthalmology department.
“We believe that our mission, our resources and our research environment are second to none. Dr. Fliesler’s recruitment is evidence that UB can attract the best and the brightest.”