Wednesday June 14, 2006

Promising Research for Eye Disease, Certain Cancers

New University of Dayton Chemistry Chair to Boost Research Initiatives; Personal Research Focuses on Eye Disease, Certain Cancers.

When Mark Masthay steps into his new position as chair of the University of Dayton's chemistry department on July 1, he'll bring with him research that may one day help create a cure for a debilitating eye disease and determine what may cause lung and prostate cancers.

Masthay, who spent the last 10 years as a chemistry professor at Murray State University in western Kentucky, is researching the process in the eye that leads to macular degeneration, an incurable disease and the leading cause of blindness for those 55 and older. Macular degeneration is caused by the deterioration of the central portion of the retina, the inside back layer of the eye that records the images we see and sends them via the optic nerve from the eye to the brain.

"My students and I are looking at a protein called bacteriorhodopsin (BR) that's very similar chemically to rhodopsin, the protein in the rod and cone cells of the eye, which absorbs light and initiates the visual process," Masthay said. "Although rhodopsin is designed to absorb light, it generates small amounts of toxic compounds at the same time. Over a long period of time, these toxic compounds induce the damage to the retina, which is characteristic of macular degeneration."

Masthay's work, which has been funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, involves exposing the protein to laser and ultraviolet light and looking at the chemical changes that take place. Those changes may relate to what happens in the eye.

"If we can figure out the changes that occur in the protein, we may be able to develop strategies to prevent similar changes in the eye and then prevent or alleviate macular degeneration," Masthay said.
Masthay's other research focus involves the ways in which carotenes — the orange compounds in yellow fruits and vegetables — impact the development of cancer.

"Although carotenes in their native form help to prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease, the compounds to which they convert in the body may actually cause cancer," Masthay said. "We're studying the way these compounds change upon exposure to light, as we believe the products produced may be similar or identical to the harmful compounds produced in the body." Mathay's work may have particular application to lung and prostate cancers.

Beyond the opportunity to advance his research at UD, Masthay said "what really turned the crank" for him was the University's Nanoscale Engineering, Science and Technology (NEST) Center, which boasts some of the latest equipment for nanofabrication and nanocharacterization, and serves as a focal point for collaborative research between academic departments and the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI).

"When I first interviewed here, I was wrapping up a research project and realized I needed an Atomic Force Microscope, which provides a three-dimensional surface topography image of a chemical sample," Masthay said. "The only people I knew personally who had one were in Germany, yet here was one readily available at the NEST Center and I thought, 'This place is far beyond most schools comparable in size.'"

Being able to continue and expand his research is just one of the reasons he wanted to come to UD. The University's four-year-old master's program in chemistry was a big draw as he hopes to grow the program and create a niche in the curriculum for writing. That's not an emphasis that immediately comes to mind when people think of chemistry, but Masthay believes the two go hand in hand.

"I'm pretty intense about science, but I'm also a communicator by nature and not all scientists are that way," Masthay said. "Many students need a technical writing course to make them more proficient. After all, even if you're the world's best chemist but can't communicate what you've done, it won't benefit society."

For more information, contact Linda Robertson at (937) 229-3257.