Tom Mendel

Ophthalmologic Research: Using Stem Cells to Combat Diabetic Retinopathy

Tom Mendel (M.D./Ph.D. Medicine)

Tom Mendel has a bachelor’s degree in economics, but it was a life-long passion for science that brought him to U.Va.

“A lot of my roommates from college are working on Wall Street,” said Mendel. “But I never lost my interest in science. That’s where I felt I could make the most meaningful impact.”

Mendel, a joint M.D./Ph.D. candidate, works at the School of Medicine’s Ophthalmology Research Lab, headed by clinician scientist and retinal surgeon, Paul Yates. Mr. Mendel’s work, which focuses on adult stem-cell therapies for treating diabetic retinopathy, was recently selected for the N.I.H.-funded U.Va. Biotechnology Training Grant.

“In the back of the eye, there are particular cells that help prevent leakage from blood vessels,” said Mendel. “We’ve known for thirty years that these cells–called pericytes–are among the first to die off when a person has diabetes, and that is when we see the leakage or bleeding that can eventually lead to blindness. If we can stop that leakage by getting adult stem cells from the O.R. to replace these cells, it could halt the progression of diabetic retinopathy before it even starts.”

After completing his research, Mendel will finish his remaining year of medical school, residency and fellowship training in order to pursue a career in academic ophthalmology. There, he plans to both treat patients and lead his own research laboratory. But until then, he remains focused on his research.

“The most predictive factor for how someone develops diabetic retinopathy is not how well they maintain their blood-sugar levels,” said Mendel. “Rather, it’s how long they have diabetes. Thanks to other health-care advances, people are living with diabetes longer than ever, and we anticipate a tremendous growth in the number of cases of diabetic retinopathy.”

Current methods to treat diabetic retinopathy involve drug injections to the eye and destructive laser procedures. Mendel hopes his research can lead to less invasive treatments.

“From a research standpoint, it’s important not only to solve what’s happening now, but to attempt to solve what is going to be important in ten to fifteen years,” said Mendel. “If we can develop a way to combat the first thing that goes wrong in the development of diabetic retinopathy, then we’ll be able to prevent it down the road without resorting to current methods that are far more intrusive and destructive.”

VIDEO > Tom Mendel on the importance of support to U.Va.’s research.