To ophthalmology surgeon Elizabeth Rossin, the retina isn’t just simply a part of the eye — “it’s a very exquisitely intricate organization of neurons.”
At Mass Eye and Ear, Rossin’s work is concerned with fixing people’s vision — both from retinal disease and from trauma. Her research began as a way to interpret the disease-causing mutations in large-scale genetic studies. “You often get thousands of places in the genome that are different between patients and controls, or patients with disease and patients without disease,” she said. “And it’s not clear which of those is actually causing disease.”
She dug into those mutations during her M.D. and Ph.D. programs at Harvard Medical School, building and analyzing networks of interacting cellular proteins. More recently, she has modeled the structure of individual proteins — work that is relevant not just to studying eye disease but has also been used to find “critical pieces of proteins to put into vaccines.” She’s named on two vaccine patents, for HIV and SARS-CoV-2.
Her work hours are split between that research and seeing patients, both in the clinic and the operating room, where she sees severe injuries like the teenager she treated after he was stuck in the eye with a pencil at school. She carefully removed his lens, a clear inner part of the eye which focuses light onto the retina, and sutured up his eye. Eventually, she replaced his lens with a synthetic one.
“He now sees almost perfectly,” she said. “It’s hard to appreciate how important that is until you lose it.”
— Jayne Williamson-Lee