Eye On the Cure Research News

Dec 7, 2020

Penn Vet’s William Beltran Elected to the National Academy of Medicine

The veterinary researcher’s canine studies are advancing promising retinal therapies toward clinical trials

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Dr. William Beltran interests weren’t all that typical of a kid growing up in Colombia and subsequently in France. Remarkably, he enjoyed observing and collecting animals and was particularly curious about the diversity of animal species. At a young age, the veterinary scientist in him was already emerging.

Examining an African lion affected with end stage retinal degeneration.

“Whether during Boy Scout camps or summer holidays in Provence with my parents, I would always walk around with a satchel filled with a bottle of formalin [preservative], vials, and a few dissection instruments collecting butterflies and experiencing failed attempts at mastering the art of taxidermy,” he recalls. “Preserving eyes was already giving me trouble at that time.”

At the age of seven, he told his parents that he wanted to become a veterinarian. “One of my uncles had trained at the Royal Vet College in London,” he says. “I remember enjoying his stories and it certainly had an influence on me."

Ultimately, his passion and determination propelled him forward to become a world-renowned veterinary ophthalmologist and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) where he heads the Division of Experimental Retinal Therapies. Together with his colleagues, he has helped advance several retinal therapies toward and into clinical trials.

What’s particularly exciting for inherited retinal disease (IRD) patients and clinical therapy developers has been Dr. Beltran’s pivotal canine studies of gene therapies for X-linked retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and autosomal dominant RP as well as those for emerging neuroprotective and optogenetic treatments.

Recognizing his exemplary success and productivity, his peers in the research community recently elected him into the prestigious National Academy of Medicine, an honorific society for exceptional leaders in their respective fields.

Mutations in more than 30 different genes cause inherited retinal degeneration in a variety of dog breeds. Developing treatments that can cure canine blindness offers hope for people affected with similar conditions.

Dr. Beltran began his veterinary education at the Ecole Nationale Vétérinaire d’Alfort (ENVA), University of Paris in France, and a few years later enrolled in a three-year veterinary ophthalmology residency program there. “I was attracted first and foremost to the beauty of animal eyes — a kaleidoscope of colors that human eyes cannot match,” he says.

But it was his exposure to people with retinal diseases that gave him a strong appreciation for the need for treatments and cures to save and restore vision. “I would spend a few afternoons a month at the department of ophthalmology led by Dr. Gisèle Soubrane at the nearby University of Paris medical school. With attending clinicians, I’d examine patients affected with age-related macular degeneration, RP, and other inherited forms of retinal degeneration,” Dr. Beltran recalls. “This is when I started to develop a sense of frustration. Whether in animals or people, we were diagnosing similar retinal diseases for which neither veterinarians nor physicians had any cure.”

In 2000, after finishing veterinary school, he left France and moved to the US to enroll in a doctoral program in Comparative Biomedical Sciences at Cornell University, working in Dr. Gustavo Aguirre’s lab on retinal neuroprotection. In 2004, he went with Dr. Aguirre to Penn Vet.

Dr. Beltran credits many mentors for his learning and advancement, including the late Dr. Bernard Clerc who was the head of the ophthalmology service at ENVA and his residency mentor, as well as Dr. Jean-Pierre Jégou.

“I am also truly indebted to Dr. Aguirre, whom I have known as a mentor, colleague, and friend for the past 20 years both at Cornell and now at Penn,” says Dr. Beltran. “He not only morphed a young veterinary ophthalmologist into becoming a vision scientist, but he continues to share his enthusiasm and has supported my efforts at better understanding the pathogenic mechanisms of retinal diseases in dogs, identifying their value as animal models, and testing a variety of therapeutic strategies.”

He also credits Drs. Artur Cideciyan and Samuel Jacobson from the Center for Hereditary Retinal Degenerations at Penn’s Scheie Eye Institute for assisting him in the evaluation of therapies in canine models of retinal degeneration for informing future human studies. “This has been truly a long-lasting and fruitful collaboration between vision scientists at the veterinary and medical schools,” he says.

The Foundation Fighting Blindness funded Dr. Beltran early in his career — through an Ed Gollob Career Development Award — before he was eligible for federal funding because of his visa status. He says, “The Foundation has been an ongoing partner supporting my lab on a number of basic science and translational programs, some of which have led to clinical trials.”

Currently, he has a Foundation Fighting Blindness grant supporting Penn Vet’s translational and research center which goal is to identify novel canine models and develop treatments to restore vision in people. Among these are gene therapies for RP caused by mutations in the Rhodopsin gene, as well as for Best disease (a form of inherited macular degeneration) that he hopes will soon be in clinical trials.

“Being able to restore vision in dogs affected by specific inherited retinal diseases has been one of the most satisfying moments of my work, especially when these successes in canines meant that we could eventually give back sight to people,” he says. “Twenty years ago it was frustration that got me into science, but now, it is hope that keeps me in the lab.”

Dr. William Beltran in the lab

Dr. Beltran next to image of a retina captured using Fluorescent microscopy.