June 15, 2011

Emory Profile

Jeffrey Boatright: Building hope for the blind

Jeffrey Boatright, with Jana Sellers (research specialist) and Tiffany Liao (Emory undergrad).

Jeffrey Boatright, with Jana Sellers (research specialist) and Tiffany Liao (Emory undergraduate).

By Margie Fishman

When it comes to delaying and, possibly one day, curing blindness and other retinal degenerations, Emory Eye Center researcher Jeffrey Boatright '92G leaves no stone unturned.

From injecting synthetic forms of bear bile, to studying the positive effects of aerobic exercise on the retina, the associate professor of ophthalmology translates arcane research findings into meaningful health outcomes.

Boatright is president of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, the premier vision research organization in the U.S. with 12,500 members in more than 70 countries. Saying he was "humbled" by the honor and assuming the post last month, his goals include publicizing advances in vision research and advocating for more research funding on Capitol Hill, along with engaging and retaining the next generation of vision researchers.

A shot in the dark

Boatright built his career at Emory. After graduating from Brown University with a bachelor's degree in neural sciences and experimental psychology, he bought a used Volkswagen Beetle, packed up everything he owned and followed his girlfriend to Emory.

At the time, Boatright was fascinated with Emory Ophthalmology and Pharmacology Professor Michael Iuvone's research examining how the brain regulates dopamine, an important neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers, as it relates to Parkinson's disease. With no backup plan, he approached Iuvone for a research job. Boatright ended up working for him for three years, studying the retina as a model for dopamine regulation and the circadian rhythms of African clawed frogs.

"It turns out that the retina has a circadian clock just like the brain," Boatright says. "In many ways, it is its own little brain."

Later, he earned his doctorate in neuroscience and pharmacology from Emory's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and completed his postdoctoral work in tissue-specific gene regulation under Emory Eye Center Professor John Nickerson.

As for the girlfriend he had followed to Emory, Claudia Saari '87L became his wife.

Bile benefits

Perhaps his most unusual area of research, Boatright has published results showing that synthetic components of a digestive juice produced by bears, when systematically injected into mice, can prevent retinal cell death and preserve the function and structure of photoreceptor cells. These cells convert light into electrical impulses that go to the brain.

This means that bear bile, used in Asia for thousands of years to prevent visual disorders, has untapped potential to treat retinal diseases that lack effective treatments, including retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration, says Boatright. Clinical trials for the bear bile project, funded by grants from the Foundation Fighting Blindness and The Abraham J. and Phyllis Katz Foundation, are planned for next year.

Boatright published his initial findings in 2006 in Molecular Vision, the country's first peer-reviewed, online-only life sciences journal. He co-founded the acclaimed journal in 1995 with Emory Eye Center scientists Nickerson and Robert Church to offer an immediate outlet for advances in molecular biology, cell biology and the genetics of the visual system. Boatright currently serves as the journal's editor-in-chief, publishing hundreds of papers each year.

Boatright's other research interest involves using molecular and cellular biology techniques to study DNA repair mechanisms. The goal: Naturally correct DNA mutations that lead to blindness.

Repairing genomic DNA has shown promise in the liver, but the responsiveness rate among retinal cells remains low. Boatright plans to use a second round of funding from the National Eye Institute to explore how to improve delivery of the DNA repair mechanisms to the retina. 

His latest research proposal involves teaming up with Emory Eye Center Associate Professor Machelle Pardue and the Atlanta VA Medical Center to study how aerobic exercise may slow the process of retinal degeneration.

Up in the air

Boatright pilots his Pietenpol airplane.

Boatright pilots his Pietenpol airplane.

Outside of the Emory Eye Center, Boatright serves on the board of the Georgia affiliate of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and is a longtime member of Emory's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which oversees the care and treatment of animals involved in research.

Growing up in rural Oklahoma, Boatright constructed gliders and model rockets from whatever materials were handy. He now enjoys cruising around in his 1965 Austin-Healey Sprite sports car and building and piloting experimental aircraft.

"To the degree that I have any free time at all, I head out to the airport," he says.

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