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Faculty Q&A: David Gamm

Dr. David Gamm is an assistant professor of opthalmology and visual sciences at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. He is the director of the McPherson Eye Research Institute. He has a pediatric opthalmology practice, and his research focus is retinal degenerative diseases.


Embryonic stem cell research was recently shut down across the country, then the ban was lifted. Are things back to normal in your lab?


David GammResearch is mostly back to normal for the time being, but the uncertainty of not knowing if funding will be shut off again is a problem. Until there's a more permanent solution, there will continue to be cause for concern.


In what ways would your work, your career, suffer if things stayed uncertain?


There's now a generation of young scientists focused on embryonic stem (ES) cell research and its applications for the treatment of human disease. It's what we do. It's not a side project for us, and we're now making that push to compete for federal funds, promotion and tenure so we can continue our work.


If the government won't fund ES cell research, it will be impossible to pursue it in a university setting, which in turn would chase away investigators and their graduate students and post docs. It becomes a downward spiral.


What alternatives do you have?


I've diversified. In addition to ES cells, my lab, like many others on campus, uses induced pluripotent cells (iPS), which are adult cells reprogrammed back to an ES state. We're very excited about this; however, the complicating factor is that in order to validate iPS cells as a model system and a source of bona fide retinal cells, we need to compare them to the gold standard - ES cells. So, research on iPS cells cannot move forward as efficiently as we'd like without concurrent ES cell research.


What is your broad area of research?


Our focus is on understanding the steps involved in producing retinal cells, and how these cells can be used to treat retinal degenerative diseases (RDD). The prototypical inherited form of RDD, known as retinitis pigmentosa, is caused by almost 100 different gene defects, all leading to blindness.


We're also studying combined blindness/deafness syndromes, such as Usher syndrome. The acquired form of RDD that we are interested in is age-related macular degeneration, which is prevalent among the elderly population. The common thread among all these RDDs is degeneration of photoreceptors in the retina.


When did you first get involved in stem cell research?


When I came to Wisconsin from Michigan in 1999 to do my ophthalmology residency and pediatric fellowship, I had no idea I'd eventually do stem cell research. Right after my fellowship ended, I applied for a National Institutes of Health Mentored Clinical Scientist Development Award (K08), which supports clinicians and surgeons who also wish to become laboratory-based researchers.


That's when I decided to work with stem and progenitor cells in the context of retinal development and disease. I established relationships within the Waisman Center with renowned scientists such as Clive Svendsen, PhD, and Su-Chun Zhang, MD, which resulted in exciting projects.


What's your lab like now?


Currently, I have five outstanding scientists in my lab at the Waisman Center, with two more joining us soon. Two very talented undergraduate students also contribute a great deal to our work.


Where exactly do stem cells fit in?


We're trying to understand the molecular switches that guide the differentiation - or maturation - of stem cells along the retinal lineage. The more we understand how these cells mature, the safer, more reliable and efficient they will be to use.


In the process of studying these mechanisms, we have also learned how to derive retinal cell types that hopefully will be of use in clinical practice. Ultimately, we'd like to use the photoreceptors and retinal pigment epithelial cells generated from ES and iPS cells to replace cells that are dead or defective due to degenerative disease.


What brought you to Wisconsin in the first place?


It was a foregone conclusion that I'd go to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for college. But after I finished my MD/PhD, I decided I'd try something different. I thought about Johns Hopkins for residency, but I chose Wisconsin after talking to Dan Albert, who then was the chair of the SMPH Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.


The dedication that the department has to producing excellent ophthalmologists and scientists sold me. Since arriving, I've never been disappointed.


Have you received a lot of support along the way?


I've gotten more support than I could have asked for. Right after residency, it was challenging to divide my life between patient care, research and family. But there were many people interested in helping me succeed. The support and enthusiasm I felt gave me the confidence to weather the more challenging times.


People who especially come to mind in that regard are SMPH deans Philip Farrell and Robert Golden, the current ophthalmology and visual sciences chair Paul Kaufman and others in the department, Waisman Center director Marsha Selzer and David Walsh, former president of the UW System Board of Regents.


How about support from foundations?


I receive a great deal of support from foundations. The Eye Research Institute and the Retina Research Foundation have been instrumental, and I recently was awarded the Retina Research Foundation Murfee Chair. David Walsh also has provided funding and, even more importantly, a great deal of encouragement. Also, I'm an investigator for the Foundation for Fighting Blindness, the largest private organization dedicated to finding cures for retinitis pigmentosa.


What about teaching?


Outside of my immediate lab, I teach clinical and surgical ophthalmology to medical students, residents and fellows. I've also taught classes on retinal development and stem cell biology as part of graduate school courses.


And your clinical activities?


I have a general pediatric ophthalmology practice. I do all types of strabismus surgery (surgery to "straighten" eyes) in both kids and adults, as well as cataract surgery, tearduct procedures and some types of eyelid surgery in children. I also examine preemies and, of course, patients with retinitis pigmentosa. I enjoy having a diverse pediatric eye practice.


That doesn't leave very much time for anything else.


I am blessed with a wonderful, fun family that keeps my priorities in order. My wife, Marilyn, and I have three kids - Emily, 15, Anna, 13, and Joe, who is 10. I'm heading to a soccer game in Waunakee right now - probably more than one.

Date Published: 11/08/2010

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Faculty Q&A: David Gamm

Last updated: 06/11/2014
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