Noriko Esumi, MD, PhD is an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. She completed doctoral studies for her MD and PhD degrees in Japan, and started her career as a Japanese pediatric oncologist. However, she quickly realized the importance of basic biomedical research to better understand the pathophysiology of human diseases and thereby improve strategies for prevention and treatment. This realization led to her decision to devote her career to basic research in the US. Dr. Esumi’s laboratory focuses on understanding the physiology and disease of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) at the molecular level. Because the RPE is thought to be a primary site of damage related to age-related macular degeneration (AMD), she has a strong interest in the molecular mechanisms of RPE aging that underlies the pathophysiology of AMD. In addition to her current BrightFocus Macular Degeneration Research (MDR) award, Dr. Esumi was a recipient of a past AHAF-MDR award as well as past NIH R01, R21, and R03 grants. She is a productive scientist with more than 80 publications.
"I started my career as a pediatric oncologist in Japan. I treated many children with leukemia, lymphoma, and solid tumors. While it was very rewarding to see children and their parents smile when they got better, it was enormously sad and frustrating when they came back with a relapse. It was then that I realized the importance of basic research to better understand human physiology and disease. This experience, and my fondness for clarity, helped me decide to devote myself to basic research in the US. After I learned a variety of experimental techniques and concepts by working on cancer biology, an unexpected connection to my friend brought me to eye research. Since then, eye research has become my primary interest, with the goal of gaining a better understanding of human biology to eventually help patients.
My research interest in the field of eye research has always been in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), and not retinal photoreceptors, the “main players” on which many investigators are working. Why am I interested in the RPE? The RPE is essential for vision and has many functions that support and nourish retinal photoreceptors. Without healthy RPE cells, there is no vision. Therefore, to me, photoreceptors are like fussy main actors in a drama, the “prima donnas” of the retina, whereas RPE cells are like the supporting cast, and exceptionally hard workers. I like to make this analogy about the character of RPE cells because RPE cells control critical events behind the scenes. Not surprisingly, the RPE is thought to be the primary site of damage related to age-related macular degeneration (AMD). I feel I am very fortunate to have such a fascinating research subject, which also provides a perfect niche for my research career. With many thanks to the BrightFocus Foundation and its donors, I am so happy to be able to continue my research studying RPE biology, particularly RPE aging that is the underlying condition for AMD."