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Creating Miracles: Down to a Science

Rose Hills grant gives undergraduates with vision the chance to change the world.

By Pamela J. Johnson
May 1, 2008

Creating Miracles: Down to a Science

The world’s first implantable retinal prosthesis — a wee intraocular camera tinier than a Tic-Tac — has become Noelle Stiles’ dedicated focus.

Each day, Stiles is eager to work on developing the device that when implanted directly into the eyes of those rendered blind by certain diseases can restore partial sight.

“I want to use fundamental science and technology to make a difference in people’s lives,” Stiles said inside a lab at USC’s Health Sciences campus. “It’s hard not to have a real passion for this, frankly, given the people we’re trying to help.”

At 21, the USC College junior is amazingly well versed on the subject of retinal prostheses. She has been assisting in the design of the breakthrough device since before she left high school.

The biophysics major and neuroscience minor is conducting research with the USC team developing the first intraocular camera directly implantable in the eye. The interdisciplinary nature of the research gives the College student an opportunity to work with professors from many related disciplines in USC’s College and professional schools.

She is working under the guidance of Armand R. Tanguay Jr., a professor of electrical engineering, chemical engineering and materials science, and biomedical engineering in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and a faculty member of the Neuroscience Graduate Program housed in the College.

“Noelle is pure enthusiasm,” Tanguay said. “She’s conducting Ph.D.-level research vital to the success of what we hope will become a crucial turning point for the blind. Noelle is so passionate about her research that last summer she often spent seven days a week in the lab. She is able to work independently in large part due to her Rose Hills Foundation fellowships.”

Stiles is among 40 College undergraduates receiving research fellowships from the Rose Hills Foundation, a nonprofit organization aiding Southern California residents. In all, the foundation has donated $2.5 million to USC for undergraduate science and engineering research.

The foundation grant is benefiting many other professor-undergrad research teams working on momentous projects promising to impact the world.

College junior Sonya Hanson and her mentor, Lin Chen, associate professor of biological sciences in the College, are pinpointing the cause of a muscle disease called myasthenia gravis (MG). Their research is building the foundation that may lead to a successful treatment or cure.

In the fall of 2006, the foundation provided a $500,000 grant to cover the cost of a pilot program, and renewed the grant for four years in winter 2008.

College Dean Howard Gillman emphasized the importance of such grants. He said the Rose Hills program helps to advance the College’s vision for the undergraduate experience, in which research — as much as general education or work in a major — builds over the course of a student’s four-year career.

“This grant underscores the commitment of USC College to ensure that our undergraduates engage in important research and scholarship with our world-class faculty,” Gillman said.

Gillman noted another new College initiative offering stipends for undergraduate research, Sophomore Opportunities for Academic Research (SOAR). In the SOAR program, qualified sophomores receive stipends to become researchers under the supervision of a faculty mentor. This new Rose Hills program builds on the undergrad research momentum.

“Thinking hard about important problems, under the guidance of great scholars and researchers, should be an essential part of an undergraduate education at a leading research college,” Gillman said.

Eugene Bickers, vice provost for undergraduate programs and professor of physics in the College, agreed. He helps to implement the program and is Stiles’ faculty adviser.

“Opportunities to engage in original research are now an essential part of undergraduate education,” Bickers said. “We’re excited that the Rose Hills program enables dozens of students to work with our best science and engineering faculty on frontier problems.”

In Stiles’ case, she was ahead of the game. While still in high school, she was recruited by Tanguay to join his research group. Tanguay hoped that the research exposure would encourage the young honor student to apply to USC. It worked. Stiles became so excited about the advanced research she was conducting at USC that she joined the Trojan Family.

But it took some persuading. Tanguay recalled attending the Orange County Science Fair with his daughter and seeing the same high school sophomore charge onto the stage again and again to retrieve another trophy.

The countywide contest involved hundreds of students, yet Tanguay was particularly impressed with the poised, then-16-year-old Stiles and her award-winning science project. He struck up a conversation with Stiles’ father and asked whether his daughter might consider conducting research at USC. He said no.

“My father wanted me to go to Berkeley,” Stiles recalled. “I had my heart set on Caltech.”

All that changed after that science fair, and Stiles began conducting research with Tanguay’s team. Inside the W.M. Keck Foundation Center for Bioelectronics Research, Stiles explained the complex intricacies of the prosthesis with the ease of a seasoned scholar.

When attached to the retina — the layers of neural cells in the back of the eye that convert images into electrical impulses sent to the brain — the prosthetic device can restore sight in those blinded by diseases such as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, she said.

In such diseases, the retina’s photoreceptor layer is destroyed, but the inner layers still work, and are able to respond to stimulation and transmit output signals to the brain’s visual cortex.

USC’s Dr. Mark Humayun developed the first retinal prosthesis years ago after his discovery that electrical stimulation of retinal nerve cells in the blind creates visual percepts. But the early prostheses were clunky. A tiny camera was attached to a pair of glasses, providing a video feed to an electrical stimulator array on the retina. People wearing the glasses had to move their heads in order to point the camera to where they were looking.

Fitting directly into the eye, the new intraocular camera provides sight through eye movement alone.

Prototypes under development are anticipated to undergo U.S. Food and Drug Administration human trials within the next few years. Stiles is quick to quote statistics that 9 million people in the United States suffer from some form of age-related macular degeneration alone, accounting for 54 percent of all blindness.

“This prosthesis ultimately may partially restore sight to millions of people,” Stiles said. “I’m thrilled to be part of this research.”

To date, Stiles’ portion of the research has been presented at seven international conferences. The undergrad recently won an Optical Society of America Student Presentation Award — an honor created to recognize exceptional research of graduate students. Of 140 nominees, 16 won awards. She was the sole undergraduate.

“But no honor and award can compare with being present when the first blind person is implanted with our camera, looks up at us, and smiles,” Stiles said.

Back at the University Park campus, Hanson and Chen were busy discussing their findings for their research on MG. Characterized by muscle weakness, the disease affects about 100,000 Americans a year and can be deadly.

The most common symptom is droopy eyelids, but the disease can progress to more severe limb weakness and respiratory distress, which can be fatal. The causes of MG are not exactly known and there are no direct therapies. Scientists do know that MG is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s own antibodies mistakenly attack the acetylcholine receptors (nAChR) in muscles rather than foreign organisms, preventing the muscle from contracting.

Hanson is researching structural information about nAChR — information that will help to design strategies to block the binding of MG antibodies to nAChR in those who have MG.

“When you think that what you’re doing may help people who are suffering, it’s very motivating,” Hanson said inside Chen’s lab at Ray R. Irani Hall. “I’m very lucky to be able to work in the Chen lab on a project that could have a major impact on both human knowledge and human life.”

Hanson’s Rose Hills Fellowship enabled her to spend the entire summer of 2007 in Chen’s lab. She continued the same research in the fall and spring with the help of USC Women in Science and Engineering grants.

“We get many undergraduate students knocking on our door to work with us,” Chen said. “And Sonya has been a shining star. She’s not walking around the lab, seeing what’s happening. She’s an integral part of the research component.”

Hanson, 20, a biophysics major and screenwriting minor, said her research in Chen’s lab has been an invaluable personal and scholastic experience.

“My relationship with science has changed drastically,” Hanson said. “With my increased exposure to the process of science, I’ve stopped being intimidated by even the most complex phenomena. I’m convinced that if someone once took the time and energy to figure it out, the least I can do is learn about it — and maybe, eventually find out something completely new and contribute to the advancement of science.”