Conversion of Pluripotent Cells to Retinal Cells and Functional Eyes: Using Simple Animal Model Systems to Identify Approaches to Treating Human Diseases Dr. Michael Zuber, Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, SUNY Upstate Medical University ABSTRACT Pluripotent cells such as embryonic stem (ES) and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are the starting point from which to generate organ specific cell types. For example, converting pluripotent cells to retinal cells could provide an opportunity to treat retinal injuries and degenerations. However, identifying the genes sufficient to drive this conversion in cultured cells has proven extremely difficult. We have approached this problem from a developmental biology perspective. The cells that form the retina have been known for over a century. We exploited this knowledge to identify a set of genes not only required for normal eye development, but also sufficient for the conversion of pluripotent to retinal cells. We have also demonstrated that these induced retinal cells can form functional eyes. These results suggest the fate of pluripotent cells may be purposely altered to generate multipotent retinal progenitor cells, which differentiate into functional retinal cell classes and form a neural circuitry sufficient for vision. Furthermore, the success of this approach emphasizes the importance of using “simple” model animal systems in stem cell research to understand the basic developmental biology of how target cell types, tissues and organs form. BIOGRAPHY Dr. Zuber received his PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he investigated the role of fibroblast growth factor (FGF) signaling in muscle development. He then took a postdoctoral position in the laboratory of Dr. Christine Holt at the University of California at San Diego, where he studied the regulation of retinal progenitor cell differentiation by FGF. After moving with Dr. Holt to the Univeristy of Cambridge, England, he investigated the molecular and cellular interactions required for vertebrate eye field formation in the laboratory of Dr. William A. Harris. He has continued this line of research and is now Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY.