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Researcher Spotlight - DR. SHANNON BOYE

A self-described “uber nerd” who met her future husband in a lab, Dr. Shannon Boye is also a mother who empathizes with parents desperate to save their children’s eyesight. And as a Foundation-funded researcher, she’s trying to do just that.

First, Some Background
“Like lots of kids, I wanted to be a marine biologist,” Dr. Boye says of getting her B.S. in that subject at Fairleigh Dickinson University. But an internship at the Whitney Lab, an offshoot of the University of Florida (UF), exposed her to biomedical research. So she stayed at UF and, while earning a Ph.D. in neuroscience, “quickly became aware of their strong gene-therapy program,” she says.

Gene therapy, the practice of replacing a mutated gene that causes disease with a healthy gene, is increasingly being used to treat patients in clinical trials. And UF’s Dr. William Hauswirth, also a recipient of FFB funding, is renowned for having developed some of the most effective gene-delivery systems known as viral vectors.

“You can think of a vector like a taxi cab, and the therapeutic DNA as the passenger inside,” Dr. Boye explains. “We, as gene therapists, give a cabbie directions on where that cab should go and where to drop the passenger off.”

While working in Dr. Hauswirth’s lab, she met and eventually married another member of his team—Dr. Sanford Boye. They have two children—Sydney, 6, and Benjamin, 4. And it’s their kids Dr. Boye thinks of when parents plead with her to find cures for retinal diseases.

Her Vision-Saving Work
Here are a few of the treatments Dr. Boye is helping develop:

  • A gene therapy for Leber congenital amaurosis caused by a defect in the GUCY2D gene. This work is not only supported by FFB; it was recently awarded a $900,000 grant by Genzyme, a pharmaceutical company showing great interest in moving the treatment toward clinical trials.
  • A gentler gene-delivery system. Gene therapies require injections delivered beneath the retina. But because that retina is severely damaged by disease, “it’s less likely to withstand surgical manipulation,” Dr. Boye says. The new approach would deliver genes through the vitreous, or front of the eye, qualifying as an outpatient procedure. “It would be a paradigm shift,” she adds.
  • A dual-vector delivery—meaning using two taxis, not just one—so as to replace genes that are currently too big for conventional vectors. “In pre-clinical studies, we’ve had a lot of success delivering a healthy version of Myosin7A, a large gene that can cause Usher syndrome, which results in both vision and hearing loss,” Dr. Boye explains. “So, as you can imagine, the potential is profound.”

The last two projects are also funded by FFB, which invests only in those researchers whose work shows great promise. Dr. Boye and the colleagues she’s aligned with meet that high standard.

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