Harvard Professor Gives John Lisman ’66 Memorial Lecture in Vision Science

April 12, 2019

A Harvard Medical School Professor received the John Lisman ’66 Memorial award on Tuesday. Professor Connie Cepko, Professor of Ophthalmology and the Bullard Professor of Genetics and Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, also delivered the John Lisman ’66 Memorial Lecture in Vision Science.

In her lecture, Cepko spoke about retinal development, gene therapy used to improve vision and developing tools that will allow the use of GFP (green fluorescent protein) to control biological activities.

Cepko began the lecture, titled, “The Development of the Vertebrate Retina and Nanobodies as Regulators of Intracellular Activities,” by talking about the work that she has done with some of her graduate students, including a “remarkable” student named Jonathan Tang.

Tang read about GFP nanobodies and realized that if you could find a pair of GFP nanobodies that could co-occupy the GFP molecule, then by making fusion cedionades such as creating in lab a cedionade of one nanobody and some protein domain, he might be able to create two fusion protein which could co-occupy GFP. GFP would then scaffle— that is, bring together—  the fusion domains and create a novel activity. That novel activity would only occur in a cell expressed GFP, said Cepko.

“I thought that it’s so clever, but it probably won’t work, because so many clever ideas don’t work. But in fact, it did,” said Cepko. They then created a method for gene exploitation in the lab named CRE-DOG, a cell type-specific manipulation with GFP-dependent Cre recombinase in 2015, according to Cepko.

Cepko started her science career in viruses in Phillips Sharp’s lab at MIT and Richard Mulligans’ lab as a postdoctoral fellow. She was instrumental in bringing the technique of using retroviruses to introduce genes into biological systems to cause expression of proteins in bio systems to enable practices like lineage tracing, according to Professor Stephen Van Hooser. He said that she most prominently has studied retinal development and has unpacked the proteins and signaling pathways that are involved in patterning and cell-based division in the retina.

Cepko has 200 papers studying the signaling pathways and the lineage tracing in a variety of structures, and she also has worked on retinitis pigmentosa, a group of rare, genetic disorders that involve a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina—which is the light sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye. She has been instrumental in developing tools for science and therapy.

Cepko said that she would have liked to meet Lisman, the namesake of the award, and that she heard he gave a lecture similar to the one that she was delivering, but his was from the ICU. “What an incredible person he must have been,” said Cepko.

The award was previously named the Jay Pepose ’75 Award in Vision Sciences, but following the death of John Lisman ’66 in 2017, the name was changed to memorialize him, according to the Brandeis events page. Lisman earned his undergraduate degree in physics from Brandeis and he later received a doctorate in physiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University under Nobel Laureate George Wald. He returned to Brandeis in 1974 as an assistant professor and then became a full professor in 1987.

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