Can a New Kind of Scientist Find Treatments for Daunting Eye Diseases? Meet Moran’s Moussa Zouache, PhD

Mar 28, 2019 10:00 AM

Moussa Zouache, PhD.
Moussa Zouache, PhD.

You might compare most researchers to a scalpel, honed for a specific type of work through years of training. But the newest scientist at the John A. Moran Eye Center seems more akin to a deluxe Swiss Army knife.

Now working with Moran’s Sharon Eccles Steele Center for Translational Medicine (SCTM), University of Utah Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences Assistant Research Professor Moussa Zouache, PhD, trained as an engineer in his native France before he decided to pursue advanced degrees in both biology and health.

“An engineer is trained to solve problems,” said Zouache. “I realized that all of the methods and principles we were applying in engineering would be extremely useful in biology and medicine to advance our understanding of the human body and find cures for diseases. My research really is all about having a question that I want to answer, and then finding the best tools from any discipline or scientific field to get to that answer.”

A New Look at Old Questions

At the age of 32, his unique approach has already produced groundbreaking revelations about a controversy that’s been around for decades: exactly how blood and molecules such as oxygen, glucose and other nutrients reach the outer part of the retina in the back of the eye. It’s these essential molecules that sustain photoreceptors—exceptionally hungry cells that depend on a network of blood vessels that feed them to process light.

Moussa Zouache, PhD, center, talks with fellow SCTM collaborators, Tiarnan Keenan, MD, PhD, left, and Philip Luthert, MBBS, FRCP, FRCPath, FRCOphth.
Moussa Zouache, PhD, center, talks with fellow SCTM collaborators, Tiarnan Keenan, MD, PhD, left, and Philip Luthert, MBBS, FRCP, FRCPath, FRCOphth.

When it comes to studying sight-robbing diseases like age-related macular degeneration (AMD), anatomical and functional changes in this delivery system have often been misunderstood or overlooked, explained Zouache.

“We know that in AMD oxygen and nutrients are not delivered as well as they would be in a normal patient, but this process is not very well understood,” said Zouache. “I’m using mechanistic models and physics combined with genetic, biological, and clinical data to understand how these processes occur normally, how genetic susceptibility for AMD modifies them, and how they change in disease.”

In 2016, research published by Zouache in Scientific Reports explained the structure and physiology of the choriocapillaris, a layer of the choroid vascular system that feeds the outer retina. The choriocapillaris is unique in the human body and has a per unit mass blood flow three to four times higher than the kidney. Zouache also introduced a framework scientists can use to measure how well metabolites are being delivered to the outer retina in healthy and diseased eyes.

Most recently, Zouache published a paper in January in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics that uses mathematical modeling to examine how the geometry of blood vessels in the choriocapillaris impacts blood flow and the transfer of molecules to the photoreceptors.

“We had to develop a novel theoretical framework and use a wide range of mathematical techniques to answer this seemingly simple question: how do molecules carried in blood travel to the outer retina?” he said of the research. “The paper uncovered fundamental mechanisms that explained the role that the choriocapillaris might play in retinal diseases including AMD.”

Collaboration Strategy

Zouache encapsulates an essential part of the SCTM strategy for fast-tracking new therapies: bringing together scientists from different disciplines—from geneticists to pathologists—to work on a singular problem.

“I don’t think that I could do any other job. I get to learn something new every day,” he said of his work. “Every day is a new challenge. And I love it.”

vision research age-related macular degeneration (AMD)