StriatechJournal Club

Restoring vision - Optogenetic gene therapy targeted at human ON-bipolar cells

Dr. Elmar Hulliger - Institute of Physiology, University of Bern

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Optogenetic gene therapy holds promise to restore high-quality vision in blind patients. Although the ON-bipolar cells, the first retinal interneurons, make the most attractive targets for optogenetic vision restoration, they have remained inaccessible to human gene therapy due to the lack of a robust cell-specific promoter. We describe the design and functional evaluation of 770En_454P(hGRM6), a human GRM6 gene-derived, short promoter that drives strong and highly specific expression in both the rod- and cone-type ON-bipolar cells of the human retina. Expression also in cone-type ON-bipolar cells is of importance, since the cone-dominated macula mediates high-acuity vision and is the primary target of gene therapies. 770En_454P(hGRM6)-driven middle-wave opsin expression in ON-bipolar cells achieved lasting restoration of high visual acuity in the rd1 mouse model of late retinal degeneration. The new promoter enables precise manipulation of the inner retinal network and paves the way for clinical application of gene therapies for high-resolution optogenetic vision restoration, raising hopes of significantly improving the life quality of people suffering from blindness.

Key Topics

  • Next-generation retinal gene therapy with AAV
  • Promoter design and evaluation
  • Human post-mortem retinal explant culturing

Learning Objectives

  • Concept of ON-bipolar cell-targeted gene therapies
  • Procedure of designing a cell-type specific promoter
  • Procedure of testing promoters in post-mortem retinal explant cultures
  • Importance of the use of adequate experimental models

Background Reading

Empowering Retinal Gene Therapy with a Specific Promoter for Human Rod and Cone ON-Bipolar Cells. Hulliger EC, Hostettler SM, Kleinlogel S.
Mol Ther Methods Clin Dev. 2020 Mar 13;17:505-519.
doi: 10.1016/j.omtm.2020.03.003.

Recent Reviews:
Optogenetic Gene Therapy for the Degenerate Retina: Recent Advances. McClements ME, Staurenghi F, MacLaren RE, Cehajic-Kapetanovic J.
Front Neurosci. 2020 Nov 11;14:570909.
doi: 10.3389/fnins.2020.570909.

Restoring vision. Roska B, Sahel JA.
Nature. 2018 May;557(7705):359-367.
doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0076-4.

About the speaker

Dr. Elmar Hulliger

Dr. Elmar Hulliger

Institute of Physiology, University of Bern


Elmar Hulliger, born in Switzerland, attained his master’s degree in Biotechnology from the ETH Zürich. Interested in applied research he subsequently joined Prof Dr. Sonja Kleinlogels Lab of Translational Optogenetics at the University of Bern for his PhD. There he established a translational model of post-mortem human retinal explant culturing and designed and evaluated synthetic promoters intended for optogenetic gene therapy. After graduating he continued his research in molecular biology and directed a pre-clinical trial of a next-generation optogenetic gene therapy.

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