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 Vet Visionary. Story by Alan Bavley.

 

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They have ever-so-cute names like Gingersnap and Cinnamon, the auburn Abyssinians from the laboratory of Kristina Narfstrom. And they have been making headlines too, even upstaging their owner at times.

Narfstrom, the University of Missouri-Columbia's Ruth M. Kraeuchi Professor in Veterinary Ophthalmology, is happy to yield the limelight, content in the knowledge that these frisky felines -- and dogs, as well -- are helping her on a career-defining mission aimed at saving the sight of millions of people with blinding retinal diseases.

Her work with dogs has led to a promising gene therapy that may one day keep children with a rare hereditary disorder from losing their vision. And the surgery she is doing to implant light-sensing microchips in the retinas of cats may help make this technology feasible for many people with deteriorating eyesight.

"This was why I got interested in being a veterinarian," Narfstrom, 59, says. "I was interested in the science and medicine. And I wanted to do something for people through the animals."

Narfstrom came to MU in 2001 from her native Sweden, where she was a leading veterinary ophthalmologist and surgeon. She brought with her seven dogs and 15 cats, progeny of the animals that have inspired much of her life's work.

Take Gingersnap, for example.

Ever since news reports began to appear early this year that Gingersnap could be turned into a "bionic cat" with a sight-saving microchip in her eye, Narfstrom has been fielding media requests for interviews from around the world.

"Cats are so...," she says, grasping for the right word. "They go straight to people's hearts."

As word of Narfstrom's work has spread, she has gotten proposals from scientists in India to collaborate on research projects. And she's received pleas from people in South Africa looking for hope that they may one day regain their vision.

The outpouring of excitement generated by Narfstrom's recent work comes as no surprise to scientists who have long followed her investigations.

"I think Kristina is one of the leaders in vision science. In veterinary ophthalmology, there are only two or three other people in the U.S. looking at things like this," says Christopher Murphy, director of the Comparative Ophthalmic Research Laboratories at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Kristina has contributed at many levels," Murphy says. "She's been able to follow through from the identification of hereditary problems to remediation, not just for veterinary patients, but for human patients."

The microchips that will give Narfstrom's cats their bionic eyes are part of a thriving new field of research into artificial vision that is seeking to restore sight the way the technological wizardry of cochlear implants has given a degree of hearing to the profoundly deaf.

       
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Published by the Office of Research.

©2007 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.