GreenLab Researchers Develop Novel Methods to Observe Disease Processes

Developing Biophotonic Markers of Neurodegenerative Processes


Ari Green, MD, and Michael Ward, MD, PhD, are partnering to develop an optical imaging technique that will allow physicians and researchers to peer into processes directly related to neurodegenerative diseases.

Green is a UCSF neurologist who has an expertise in treating visual problems associated with multiple sclerosis and other inflammatory diseases of the central nervous system, and Ward, formerly a behavioral neurology fellow at UCSF and postdoctoral fellow at the Gladstone Institutes, is now an assistant professor at UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center. He connected with Green through a clinical rotation during his residency at UCSF.

Ward admits to being more of a basic scientist, while Green is more of a clinical researcher; but this multi-disciplinary team finds value in playing off varied backgrounds. Together they envisioned a biomarker for neurodegenerative disease based on evaluation of the retina. To accomplish that, Ward is working to refine the imaging methodology and Green is bringing a clinical perspective.

“The retina is really just an extension of the central nervous system that is available for light-based imaging and allows us to look directly at the tissue of interest,” says Green. He explains that unlike other potential biomarkers such as MRI features or levels of specific molecules in the cerebral spinal fluid, evaluation of the retina via biophotonic methods is amenable to large-scale screening efforts.

“It’s non-invasive, it’s inexpensive, it’s rapid,” three elements that make for an ideal biomarker, says Ward. Such measures can serve as clinical outcomes, which are required for moving any potential new therapeutics into clinical trials. “We want to develop the method for transforming those early discoveries into therapies,” explains Green.

Green and Ward’s research has benefited from the support of the Catalyst Awards program, an initiative managed by UCSF’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) to foster early translational research at UCSF. Green admits that typically scientists don’t think about how to actually bring scientific discoveries to a marketplace, but the Catalyst Awards Program consultants provided counsel to help develop a framework for moving their novel method in that direction

Green’s advice to researchers looking into translational work: “It’s as much about networking within the university as anything else. The Catalyst Awards Program has the capacity to create those networks, but that potential exists throughout the university.”

Ward agrees, noting that “new potential discoveries can happen at the interface between two fields that don’t necessarily talk to each other.”