Derek defies stereotypes. As a world-leading neurobiologist, Derek is outspoken and often outlandish, thriving on scientific debate and fearlessly challenging students and peers alike. His discovery of retinal stem cells and his continuing research in the field could well lead to a cure for blindness within the next decade. Derek is a professor in the Department of Medical Genetics and Microbiology at the University of Toronto.

Beyond Blindness

If embryonic stem cells start out as virtual blank slates capable of generating all the tissue in a human body, it only makes sense that there has to be stem cells in the human eye. This is what Derek van der Kooy set his sights on and in 2000 he was able to isolate human retinal stem cells.

It was the start of what many believe has the potential to cure blindness. It has done virtually that in mice. Derek and his team have been able to transplant retinal stemcells into the eyes of visually impaired mice and have shown that the tissue regenerated to develop better sight in the animals.

The hope of researchers now is to transplant healthy stem cells into diseased human eyes — either taken from the retina or induced pluripotent stem cells — with the goal of replacing lost photoreceptors or retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells to restore vision.

The future is so close that Derek believes in the next 10 years treatments using stem cells for degenerative eye diseases such as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa are a real possibility.