Xi-Qin Ding, Ph.D.
Professor of Cell Biology
Joanne I. Moore Professor of Pharmacology
Department of Cell Biology
University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center
1. What is your lab’s long-term/big-picture research goal?
The human retina is comprised of light-responsive neuronal cells called photoreceptors. There are two types of photoreceptors: rods and cones. Rods are responsible for dim light vision, whereas cones are responsible for bright light, color vision, and visual acuity (the ability to distinguish the shapes and details of the things we see). In retinal degenerative diseases, rods and cones undergo progressive death/degeneration over time. These diseases include retinitis pigmentosa (progressive degeneration of rods, followed by secondary degeneration of cones), age-related macular degeneration (dysfunction of retinal supporting cells, known as retinal pigment epithelium, and the subsequent degeneration of cones/rods), and diabetic retinopathy (diabetes-induced retinal malfunction). Although there are many different disease-causing gene alterations and pathological conditions, the progressive death of cones and rods ultimately leads to loss of vision/blindness. There are currently no treatments available for retinal degeneration. The long-term goal in my laboratory is to understand the cellular and molecular mechanism(s) of retinal/photoreceptor degeneration and identify therapeutic strategies for retinal degenerative diseases.
2. What is your training/scientific background?
I am a Professor of Cell Biology and the Joanne I. Moore Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. I received my education in medicine and physiology in China, obtained my Ph.D. degree in pharmacology from the University of Lund in Sweden, and received post-doctoral training in biochemistry and molecular biology at the Mayo Clinic and Foundation. The primary focus of my laboratory research is to understand the mechanism(s) of retinal degeneration in order to identify therapeutic strategies. I have published over 50 research articles in peer-reviewed journals, and the research in my laboratory has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Foundation Fighting Blindness, the Bright Focus Foundation, the Knights Templar Eye Foundation, the Oklahoma Center for Advancement in Science and Technology, and OCASCR.
3. What is the goal of your OCASCR project?
Retinal degenerative diseases have no cure at this time. Photoreceptors are terminally developed neurons, and once lost, they are not replaced. Thus, cell transplantation/stem cell-based cell replacement therapy represents a significant effort for patients who suffer from loss of photoreceptors/vision. The objective of our OCASCR project is to determine the potential of developing the adult stem cells, known as human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs), into a photoreceptor-rich cell population for cell replacement therapy. We will use a protein called COCO to promote hiPSC development. COCO is a multifunctional protein and has been shown to stimulate the development of embryonic stem cells into rod and cone photoreceptors. In our proposed project, we will use COCO combined with modulating the specific regulations of photoreceptor differentiation to promote hiPSC development into a cone- or rod-rich cell population. Completion of the proposed study will demonstrate the potential of hiPSC development into a photoreceptor-rich cell population and help establish stem cell-based cell therapy for blinding diseases of the retina.
4. How might your research impact diseases related to obesity or smoking?
Smoking is a well-known risk factor for age-related macular degeneration, whereas diabetic retinopathy is one of the common complications from diabetes/obesity. In age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, rods and cones undergo progressive death/degeneration over time, leading to loss of vision/blindness. Our research aimed at establishing cell replacement therapy for retinal/photoreceptor degeneration will have significant impact on the management of age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. If cell replacement therapy can provide even a small population of functional cones/rods and some vision restoration, the outcome will be significant and could help patients with age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy maintain their quality of life and independence.
5. What’s your most critical piece of research equipment in your lab? Why?
The most critical piece of research equipment in my laboratory is the thermal cycler/PCR machine. With this equipment, we can run many different types of experiments/assays. These include genotyping PCR to determine the genetic background of our experimental animals and verify gene editing, qRT-PCR to analyze gene expression at mRNA levels, and mutagenesis PCR for molecular cloning. It can also be used conveniently as a temperature-controlled incubator for reverse transcription reactions.
6. What’s your favorite scientific meeting to attend? Why?
The International Symposium on Retinal Degeneration is my favorite scientific meeting to attend. This 4-day meeting is held every other year and usually attracts about 200 attendees/scientists specialized in retinal degeneration research. The meeting is held in a hotel that can accommodate meeting space, lodging, and meals for all attendees so that scientists have plenty of opportunities to interact. The meeting has platform presentations and poster presentations. The platform presentation includes keynote lectures, regular podium presentations, and travel awardee/young scientist presentations. The post-presentation is usually held in the evening combined with happy hours. With these activities and convenient accommodations, scientists from all over the world have opportunities to network, optimize their research direction/focus, establish collaborations, and improve their problem-solving skills.