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Ophthalmology Professor Advocates and Educates on Vision Research Globally

TJ Hollingsworth, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology, Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology, and Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Biochemistry, has a passion for advocacy, teaching, and researching the causes and progression of diseases affecting the retina.

TJ Hollingsworth, PhD, is committed to advocacy, education, and research in the field of ophthalmology.

Dr. Hollingsworth was recently chosen as a member of the 2023 Emerging Vision Scientists cohort for the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR)/Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (AEVR) and participated in communicating the value of research and advocating for increased funding for the National Institutes of Health and National Eye Institute to members of Congress. During the Advocacy Day, Dr. Hollingsworth met with Congressman Steve Cohen and U.S. Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Haggarty.

“We try to advocate for increased funding to both the National Eye Institute and the National Institutes of Health as a whole,” Dr. Hollingsworth said. “It was a great experience and I have applied to do this again. I feel like it takes people like me who actually want to make change happen.”

The NAEVR is a nonprofit advocacy organization and affiliate of the nonprofit educational foundation AEVR. The NAEVR works to achieve the best eye and vision care for all Americans through advocacy and public education for eye and vision research sponsored by the NIH, NEI, and other federal agencies.

After earning his Bachelor of Science degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology at Jacksonville State University in 2007, Dr. Hollingsworth’s interest in vision increased when he earned his PhD in vision science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2013.

He held a post-doctoral fellowship in physiology at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center in 2014 and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at UTHSC in the Department of Ophthalmology in 2015.

With his passion for teaching, he serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology, Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology, and the Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Biochemistry in the UTHSC College of Medicine. He serves in various roles in the Hamilton Eye Institute, including as the chair of the institute’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. He is also an adjunct professor in Microbiology at the University of Memphis.

Dr. Hollingsworth’s research focuses on diseases affecting the retina, including retinitis pigmentosa, a group of rare eye diseases that makes cells in the retina break down over time and cause vision loss, according to the NEI. “It affects about one in 4,000 live births, it’s pretty prevalent for genetic diseases and it’s not uncommon to find people with it,” he said.

“I love uncovering the molecular mechanisms that cause onset of the disease and its progression. Understanding how these proteins were changed and the mutations, and what they do differently now compared to what they were supposed to be doing, was always fascinating. And then fixing them with gene therapies, which is something we’re seeking to move into in the lab in the future,” he said.

He has conducted research with Hamilton Endowed Professor and Vice Chair and Director of Research, Monica Jablonski, PhD, who he credits for extending tremendous support.

“I owe so much to her, she’s beyond a good person and she took a chance on me. I am just glad that my skills backed up her opinion of me. We’ve been working since 2019 and have published six or seven papers now with each other,” Dr. Hollingsworth said. “She has supported me and everything I’ve done, and I love her to death.”

Dr. Hollingsworth and Dr. Jablonski have collaborated on multiple projects, including as co-authors of a recent study published this year in Biomolecules with Andrew Manley and Bahar Meshkat, students in the Department of Ophthalmology, focusing on the underlying molecular mechanisms of the development of Inherited Retinal Dystrophies (IRDs), and showing that chronic inflammation in the retina of mouse models of IRDs progresses the rate of degeneration.

“He is a true asset to my lab and the entire Department of Ophthalmology. He is always willing to go the extra mile and do what he can to help out anyone who needs help,” Dr. Jablonski said. “Extraordinarily hardworking, very detailed and meticulous, just a great guy and we are all very happy that he is a part of the Hamilton Eye Institute.”

Now, Dr. Hollingsworth and Dr. Jablonski are working in a collaborative study to uncover the genetics involved in causing retinal degeneration, to find a treatment to preserve vision while gene therapies are being formed.

“To treat these diseases, you have to do gene therapy and because there are mutations in the actual DNA, you have to physically correct them or provide the right gene back. It takes a long time because patients will have different mutations in the same gene that cause the same problem, but you can’t fix one at different ends of the gene with one method” Dr. Hollingsworth said. “If we can preserve vision for longer while it takes time to make these gene therapies, the children who are going blind in their teenage years will hopefully have vision long enough for them to get gene therapies paid for.”

Dr. Hollingsworth presented a talk about the current collaborative study with Dr. Jablonski and other researchers showing the mechanism of retinal degeneration in the BXD32 mouse at the XXth International Symposium on Retinal Degenerations in Spain.

Dr. Hollingsworth received a diversity travel award to the XXth International Symposium on Retinal Degenerations in Torremolinos, Andalusia, Spain in October and presented a talk titled, “A novel polygenic model of early onset inherited cone-rod dystrophy, the BXD32 mouse, exhibits a loss of proper outer segment and/or disc morphogenesis.”

“I got a travel award to a conference in 2021 in Nashville, and I used that in my application for the travel award this year and it was a great conference – but it was in Nashville, and it didn’t help me grow as a scientist in that sense, so participating in an actual international conference would be beneficial to my career,” he said. “And I am also gay, in the LGBTQ community, and the BrightFocus Foundation supports this conference and a diversity travel award for it. It meant so much to go to Spain. The conference was huge this year.”

The symposium gathered many prominent researchers in the field of retinal degeneration and age-related macular degeneration into one room, Dr. Hollingsworth said.

“It was fantastic. I had many compliments from people who are big in the field, and they said, ‘why are you working on something so complex?’ and I thought, because someone has to work on it,” he said. “There’s a paper just published where a woman has five mutations in three different genes and her whole retina is degenerating, which is exactly what’s happening in this mouse. So, it’s medically relevant because of the paper that was just published and it’s really cool to see what you’re working on become something that’s relevant when people thought it had no place being investigated.”