Go to page content

Beautiful sight

Swiss summer research position to focus on retinal degeneration cure

Student Life

By Kelly Foss

Lauren Winsor is one of 22 students with an international summer research position at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, known in English as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

She is the only Canadian chosen to participate in the program from nearly 800 applicants. The position includes a fellowship of 3,200 Swiss francs, which pays for housing and living expenses and up to 1,000 Swiss francs for international travel.

The Mount Pearl resident has completed her third year of a psychology degree with a minor in biology and will start her eight-week work term in the French speaking region of Switzerland on July 3.

Common condition

Ms. Winsor will be working in a neuroengineering lab in the School of Life Sciences under the supervision of Dr. Diego Ghezzi.

“Dr. Ghezzi lab’s work focuses on retinal degeneration and how it can produce adult onset blindness,” she said.

“They are looking at creating several different neuro-prosthetics that can be implanted in the eyes to alter photoreception and hopefully restore vision in people who have lost their sight due to retinal degeneration.”

“With these prosthetics, it may be possible to one day have a cure.” — Lauren Winsor

Ms. Winsor chose the lab because Dr. Ghezzi focuses on a condition called retinitis pigmentosa; Ms. Winsor volunteers in the genetics department of Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine. The doctor she volunteers with there — Dr. Jane Green — also focuses on retinitis pigmentosa, a common condition in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“I thought that was a really cool connection,” she said.

‘Amazing opportunity’

In the application to the EPFL summer research program, Ms. Winsor says she was required to write about why she wanted to work in the lab that she selected.

“Working in Switzerland on a cure for a condition that is really common in Newfoundland and Labrador is also an amazing opportunity.” — Lauren Winsor

She says she wrote about seeing how deeply retinitis pigmentosa impacts people’s lives when they start to lose their sight.

“There’s no cure right now for retinal degeneration in retinitis pigmentosa and the blindness that follows from it, but with these prosthetics, it may be possible to one day have a cure, or at least a temporary treatment,” she said.

“Working in Switzerland on a cure for a condition that is really common in Newfoundland and Labrador is also an amazing opportunity.”

The Ghezzi lab is a multidisciplinary one, combining biomedical engineers and neuroscientists. They study photoreceptors to see how they operate and how a prosthetic could fit into the retina to restore the functioning of photoreceptors that are lost due to damage or disease.

Personal connection

The work has a personal connection for Ms. Winsor, who was born with retinal damage herself.

Her condition, called retinal coloboma, is caused by retinal malformation that occurs during fetal development. When a fetus develops, the retina is flat and then comes together to form a concave disc shape in the back of the eye when a person is fully grown.

“In people with retinal colobomas, when the retina is closing into the circular shape, it doesn’t close completely, so there are holes in your retina, which can significantly impair vision. Unfortunately, there is currently no way to repair this damage or fully restore the vision lost to the coloboma.”

‘Can’t wait to get started’

Because Ms. Winsor was born with the condition, she says she does not notice the damage.

But, she has been told by doctors that she will never be able to see in the same way as a person whose retinas are intact. She hopes that the lab she will soon work in may one day prove them wrong.

“Having the opportunity to work on treatments for previously untreatable diseases like retinitis pigmentosa is incredible.” — Lauren Winsor

“It is possible that in my lifetime there will be a treatment for retinal damage like mine and blindness caused by diseases like retinitis pigmentosa,” she said.

“It’s great to see these advances are being made. When you’re told that there is no treatment available for your condition, it is very discouraging, and I have experienced this feeling several times in my life. Having the opportunity to work on treatments for previously untreatable diseases like retinitis pigmentosa is incredible, and I can’t wait to get started.”


To receive news from Memorial in your inbox, subscribe to Gazette Now.


Latest News

New round

Applications accepted for conference and cross-campus funding

Holy Grail

Search for Earth’s twin subject of upcoming public lecture

Avoid tickets

Smart phone app available to pay campus parking fees

Lifelong leader

Q&A with Tribute Award recipient Sharron Callahan

Hands-on learning

Federal investment enhances Memorial's community programming

Pregnant in the field

Mini baby boom in archaelogy department heralds new era