Seeing into the Future: UCI Professor Experiments with Stem Cells to Restore Vision

by Liam Blume

Dr. Magdalene Seiler led me from the elevator of the Sue and Bill Gross Hall down a wide hallway, past an open door where a professor was speaking monotonously to a student, to her office. About five-foot-five, she leaned forward when she walked, proceeding eagerly at  a  rapid pace. She seemed to be in a hurry, moving somewhere important.

We sat down at her desk, Dr. Seiler behind her computer preparing images, and myself waiting. A red bike, speckled with mud, was parked on the wall beside the desk; above it, a small note card from the Society for Neuroscience congratulating Dr. Seiler on 25 years of service. In the corner, a sink; beside it, a tea pot, rack of two drying mugs and a plate. The office had an aura of home. Atop the desk were three stacks of papers, each two inches tall, in piles that were both ordered and haphazard.

Dr. Seiler wasted no time turning the screen my way, “Here,” she said with a slight German accent, “we have a cross section of the eye with retinitis pigmentosa. As you can see, in time the eye loses photoreceptors. Here is how a person would see with the disease.”

The screen displayed a slim circular field of vision, like peering through a straw.

“Our goal is to transplant the cells into the retina, above the degenerating layer.”

She spoke fast, and peered distantly as she spoke, as if looking somewhere beyond the computer.

Initially, the transplanted stem cells will arrest the decline of degenerating cells, and slow vision loss. However, when given time to multiply, the stem cells have the potential to restore vision. From deep in the retina, photoreceptor cells will multiply and allow light to be deciphered more accurately.

“Replacing the cells,” Dr. Seiler adds, “would be much easier than replacing the optic nerve.”

Dr. Seiler and her colleagues in the UCI stem cell research lab submitted their findings last August, but are reworking some discrepancies. Convincing other scientists the failing photoreceptors aren’t influencing the sensitivity to light is tricky. But Dr. Seiler explained how control subjects without treatment lost a majority of vision, while those treated maintained vision for the first six months. Following the initial six months, treated subjects vision begins improving substantially.

After receiving her neurochemistry Ph.D. in 1985 from the Max Planck Institute in Munich, Germany, Dr. Seiler came to North Carolina to work as a research scientist. Though she hadn’t previously studied the eye, Dr. Seiler became fascinated by her work. Working in North Carolina had other benefits for the doctor. As she stated, professorship in Germany requires, essentially, a second Ph.D.; and that extra work does not ensure opportunities as a researcher. In America, Dr. Seiler found a new home in biology. She’s worked in Kentucky and Massachusetts as well, researching the eye.

She laughs, recalling the time her high school biology teacher gave her an F on an exam.

“Only an exam, not the whole class,” she smiles. Luckily for medical research, that bad test didn’t deter Seiler; she’s now at the vanguard of medicine.

Though stem cells have faced moral criticism in the U.S., Dr. Seiler does not wish to return to Europe where laws are less strict.

“After 1990, I decided this would be my home,” she said, shuffling papers across her desk.

Those wishing to learn more about Dr. Seiler’s research with UCI can visit Researchgate, an online platform for scientists to share their work. Her studies are too vast to fill this article. In short, her goal is to perfect research on macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. Eventually, the university hopes to parlay her research on photoreceptors to similar neural cells, with hopes of curing degenerative neurological diseases like Huntington’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

A truss bridge spans the chasm between the Ayala Science Library and Dr. Seiler’s office in the medical science buildings. The setting sun cast an orange filter on the bridge, and across it a man in a blue and gold UCI polo was snapping pictures. Orange and green autumn filled his lens. He’s “getting a snapshot of the school for the website,” he said. “Lighting’s great, only nobody’s on the bridge.” His boss wanted someone who characterized the school, he said.

“What’d be perfect is if someone rode across the bridge on a red bike. That’d be perfect in this light.”

I thought of Dr. Seiler’s red bike and the new miles she was exploring in stem cells — a snapshot of UCI.