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Department of Biological and Medical Sciences
Faculty of Health and Life Sciences
I am a member of Professor Nicola Ragge's research group investigating the genetic basis of the human developmental eye disorders anophthalmia (missing eye), microphthalmia (small eye) and coloboma (gap in the structures of the eye) (AMC).
I give ethics lectures for the modules U14675: Evidence Based Medicine and Diagnostics, and U14573: Genomic Medicine.
We use a combination of whole exome and whole genome sequencing, combined with a variety of functional genetic techniques to identify gene variants underlying human developmental eye disorders in a cohort of over 400 patients diagnosed with AMC and their families. In addition, we are interested in the role of larger gains and losses of segments of DNA (copy number variants) in these disorders.
Microphthalmia, coloboma and cataract are part of a spectrum of developmental eye disorders in humans affecting ~ 12 per 100 000 live births. Currently, variants in over 100 genes are known to underlie these conditions. However, at least 40% of affected individuals remain without a clinical genetic diagnosis, suggesting variants in additional genes may be responsible. Calpain 15 (CAPN15) is an intracellular cysteine protease belonging to the non-classical Small Optic Lobe (SOL) family of calpains, an important class of developmental proteins, as yet uncharacterised in vertebrates. We identified five individuals with microphthalmia and/or coloboma from four independent families carrying homozygous or compound heterozygous predicted damaging variants in CAPN15. Several individuals had additional phenotypes including growth deficits, developmental delay and hearing loss. We generated Capn15 knockout mice that exhibited similar severe developmental eye defects, including anophthalmia, microphthalmia, and cataract, and diminished growth. We demonstrate widespread Capn15 expression throughout the brain and central nervous system, strongest during early development, and decreasing postnatally. Together, these findings demonstrate a critical role of CAPN15 in vertebrate developmental eye disorders, and may signify a new developmental pathway.
The identification of genetic variants implicated in human developmental disorders has been revolutionized by second-generation sequencing combined with international pooling of cases. Here, we describe seven individuals who have diverse yet overlapping developmental anomalies, and who all have de novo missense FBXW11 variants identified by whole exome or whole genome sequencing and not reported in the gnomAD database. Their phenotypes include striking neurodevelopmental, digital, jaw, and eye anomalies, and in one individual, features resembling Noonan syndrome, a condition caused by dysregulated RAS signaling. FBXW11 encodes an F-box protein, part of the Skp1-cullin-F-box (SCF) ubiquitin ligase complex, involved in ubiquitination and proteasomal degradation and thus fundamental to many protein regulatory processes. FBXW11 targets include b-catenin and GLI transcription factors, key mediators of Wnt and Hh signaling, respectively, critical to digital, neurological, and eye development. Structural analyses indicate affected residues cluster at the surface of the loops of the substrate-binding domain of FBXW11, and the variants are predicted to destabilize the protein and/or its interactions. In situ hybridization studies on human and zebrafish embryonic tissues demonstrate FBXW11 is expressed in the developing eye, brain, mandibular processes, and limb buds or pectoral fins. Knockdown of the zebrafish FBXW11 orthologs fbxw11a and fbxw11b resulted in embryos with smaller, misshapen, and underdeveloped eyes and abnormal jaw and pectoral fin development. Our findings support the role of FBXW11 in multiple developmental processes, including those involving the brain, eye, digits, and jaw.
In addition to my genetics research, I have studied Christian theology at Regent's Park College (undergraduate diploma, Biblical and Theological Studies), and the University of Winchester (MTh Religion, Ethics and Society). I am currently studying part-time for a PhD applying the theologies of Martin Luther and Vladimir Solovyov to relationship between natural scientists the Christian theologians to form a basis for the development of a Christian theological ethics to challenges within medical genetics.