SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Medical scientists at the University of Utah John A. Moran Eye Center recently compiled years of hard work to help progress research into the central nervous system. Dr. Frans Vinberg and Dr. Fatima Abbas spoke with ABC4 about their groundbreaking findings regarding the body’s neuron cells. 

In short, Drs. Vinberg and Abbas have challenged the long-standing scientific belief that neurons are “particularly sensitive to changes the body goes through after death” by reviving light-sensing neurons in organ donor eyes. “We were able to wake up photoreceptor cells in the human macula, which is the part of the retina responsible for our central vision,” elaborates Dr. Abbas. 

Drs. Vinberg and Abbas said that they spent much of the last five years since the project started in 2017 on call at all times of the day for when they might receive a donor eye to experiment with. Dr. Vinberg says that their findings are the results of spending long hours in a dark room to protect the light-sensitive tissue of the retina. He said he appreciated leaving the room to sunny weather in Utah compared to darkness in Finland, where he grew up. 

Drs. Vinberg and Abbas’ findings expand the limit of time that passes between bodily death and donated neurons being revived. The tissue they used from donor retinas function as a more accessible “model” for the entire central nervous system (CNS) after bodily death.  

When asked how they felt at the end of the study, Dr. Abbas said that their recently published findings are really a new beginning for medical research into the CNS. Rather than immediately shape medical practice, Drs. Vinberg and Abbas’ findings will likely result in new avenues of research that were unavailable to scientists in the past. They also might reduce the burden of animal testing in medical research. 

Regarding speculation as to what this future research into the CNS might yield, Drs. Vinberg and Abbas say that applications could range from better insights into treating retinal disorders or even neurodegenerative disorders. They both acknowledge that these applications are in the far future, more “science fiction” currently than imminent research. 

Regardless, Drs. Vinberg and Abbas’ findings change what scientists know about the central nervous system and how it responds to death and opens a multitude of new research possibilities. 

Drs. Vinberg and Abbas want Utahns to know how important organ donation is to their and other medical researchers’ work. They encourage readers to consider becoming an organ donor for scientific research and are extremely grateful for the donors and their families that made their research possible.