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Krzysztof Palczewski: Research With Rigor

Scientists aims to stop degeneration of eyesight

Dr. Krzysztof Palczewski is searching for the cure to blindness.

A professor of multiple fields including ophthalmology, physiology, chemistry and molecular biology with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, the Poland native is focused on studying the genetic events that lead to changes in the body’s DNA that causes eye diseases.

Through his education—which started at the University of Wroclaw in Poland and ended at Southern Illinois University where he first arrived in the states as a graduate student in 1979—and his research, Palczewski has sought to repair those mutations through genetic engineering and the development of molecular therapies.

Palczewski returned to the U.S. permanently in 1986 and continued his work across the U.S. before landing in Irvine in 2018.

He views “vision as a sensor, a connection to the external world whether in work or art,” Palczewski, who was recognized at the Business Journal’s­ Innovator of the Year Awards on Sept. 8, told the Business Journal.

His contributions have been critical to understanding how eyesight degenerates and how to prevent it, according to Dr. Michael Stamos, dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine.

Palczewski is the director of the Center for Translational Vision Research at UCI and is a faculty member in the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute.

He has positioned UCI to take the lead in cutting-edge research and has brought the university to the forefront of eye health, according to Stamos.

“We believe UCI can be the best place for research in the world,” Palczewski said. “The one place to eliminate blindness.”

Moving Mountains

For Palczewski, innovation has been his companion since the beginning of his adult life.

“Thinking of and finding solutions was always with me,” he said.

In this year’s spring issue of the scientific journal Nature, Palczewski and his team published a study illustrating a treatment for inherited retinal disease through genomic base editing. This method uses technology to introduce a single mutation in DNA to prevent deterioration.

If adopted into practice, it’s expected that all inherited retinal diseases can be treatable within 10 years, according to Stamos.

Palczewski currently holds 29 patents with nine pending, and his published research has been cited more than 54,000 times.

He is also the only scientist to have won both the Cogan Award for the most promising young vision scientist in 1996 and the Friedenwald Award in 2014 for continuously outstanding ophthalmology research.

Palczewski’s scientific hero is Marie Curie, another Polish visionary who used the surname Skłodowska and pursued a career in physics and chemistry. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and achieve a Ph.D. in Paris.

He considers her a must-have role model for her “tremendous intellect and force.”

The professor also pointed to his mother, “who believed in me for everything,” and his wife of 44 years, Grazyna Palczewska, as heroes in his life.
“One person cannot move a mountain.”

Critical Understanding

At UCI, Palczewski enjoys being able to conduct research daily, and has done so since joining the vision research center in 2018.

“We have already seen changes in the last four years at UCI,” Stamos said.

“The institute is not stagnant,” Palczewski said. “And science cannot be done in isolation—it requires interaction.”

Coming to the U.S. 40 years ago, Palczewski noticed the depth of research conducted at many institutions across the country rather than a select few.

As the current director of the center, he wants to make UCI the principal place for ophthalmology and eye health.

When asked about the process of innovation, Palczewski pointed to the importance of learning and being open-minded.

“If you don’t know something, you can start and learn anything,” he said. “The rigor of understanding is critical in science.”

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