Published February 24, 2020
Saving Vision with Safer, More Effective Retinal Therapies
As the inaugural holder of the Alfonse A. Cinotti/Lions Eye Research Chair of Ophthalmology, Marco Zarbin is helping patients with retina-related vision loss.
Marco Zarbin’s research focuses on cell-based therapy for patients with aged-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the United States in people over age 55. He and his colleagues are working to develop successful techniques to replace dead, diseased, or damaged cells in the retina with healthy ones to save a patient’s vision.
Zarbin, the inaugural holder of the Alfonse A. Cinotti/Lions Eye Research Chair of Ophthalmology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, also works with Ellen Townes-Anderson in the school’s Department of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Neuroscience to develop pharmacological therapy that will improve retinal function following retinal detachment and other forms of retinal trauma. This translational research has the potential to improve vision in patients with retinal degenerative disease as well as in patients with other retina-related vision loss.
“The successful completion of this research,” Zarbin says, “may lead to a safer and more effective surgical approach to cell transplantation in patients with advanced dry macular degeneration. It may also lead to better vision preservation among patients with retinal detachment or retinal trauma who do not require cell-based therapy.”
Zarbin graduated from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and completed his residency and fellowship training at the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute, where he received the Francis S. Schwentker Award for excellence in research. He is chair of the Institute of Ophthalmology and Visual Science at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and chief of ophthalmology at University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey. He is the co-director of the Ocular Cell Transplantation Laboratory at the medical school.
He has co-authored 227 peer-reviewed publications, 120 book chapters, 214 abstracts, and books on age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and cell-based therapy for degenerative retinal disease. He is editor in chief of Translational Vision Science and Technology and is a member of the editorial boards of Ophthalmology and Ophthalmology-Retina. He is a vice chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. He is also a member of Academia Ophthalmologica Internationalis, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Ophthalmological Society, the Club Jules Gonin, the Retina Society, the Macula Society, and the American Society of Retina Specialists.
The chair he holds is named in honor of Alfonse Cinotti, M.D., a professor and chairman emeritus of the Institute of Ophthalmology and Visual Science at New Jersey Medical School, and the New Jersey Lions, which helped fund the chair.
In the Professor’s Own Words
Why focus on the eyes?
As a medical student and graduate student, I wanted to focus on diseases and conditions involving the central and peripheral nervous system. During graduate school, one of my projects involved doing microsurgery, which I liked (possibly a carryover from childhood during which I enjoyed building models). My career objectives gradually shifted from wanting to be a neurologist to considering neurosurgery or ophthalmic surgery. I thought that both careers would be challenging and gratifying, but I was especially attracted to retinal microsurgery, the complex technology involved, and the outstanding technical and functional results that could be achieved with meticulous attention to detail. I feel very fortunate to have been able to pursue a career as a retina surgeon. My laboratory research is focused on making retina surgery safer and more effective for patients.
What aspect is most challenging?
There is no facet of practicing medicine that I do not enjoy. We are all different and, in some ways, all the same. The challenge is to find the best way to communicate to any given patient what their problem is, what can be done to help them (if anything), and to set realistic expectations on what we can hope to achieve with current technology and pharmacology.
What aspect is most fulfilling?
When I prevent a baby from going blind or help a person blinded from retinal disease recover lost vision.
Can you share a success story?
Success is always a miracle of sorts. As surgeons, we do the surgery, but we do not actually make the patient recover vision. (Visual recovery occurs through a healing process that follows anatomically successful surgery and over which we have little or no control at present. As the French surgeon Ambroise Paré said, “I treated him, but God healed him.”). If doctors practice long enough, they will witness more than one or two miracles. I care for several children who were born extremely prematurely and who developed severe retinopathy of prematurity but who were fortunate enough to respond remarkably well to surgery and now function normally as teenagers and young adults with normal or near normal vision. I care for several patients who sustained severe ocular trauma, but whose response to surgical intervention was truly miraculous with full recovery of vision. I think all retina surgeons have these stories to tell.
This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond.