Meet a Specialist: Eric Pierce, MD, PhD
An inspirational teacher can make a lasting impression on a young medical student, and Eric Pierce, MD, PhD, is thankful to his teacher – cornea specialist Dr. Ann Bajart – for introducing him to ophthalmology back in medical school. Dr. Pierce recalls, “The research questions surrounding the causes of eye disease were so interesting, and for someone like me considering a career as a clinician scientist, ophthalmology seemed like a great field.”
Today, Dr. Pierce is a clinician scientist of the highest caliber who gets excited about “the real potential to restore vision in people with inherited retinal degenerations.” He is the Associate Director of the Electroretinography Service (ERG) and the Berman-Gund Laboratory for Retinal Degenerations, Director of the Ophthalmology Department’s Ocular Genomics Institute, and the Solman and Libe Friedman Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School.
The cornerstone of Dr. Pierce’s practice is a willingness to give patients – children, families and adults – as much time as they need to discuss their disease. “The clinical testing that we do to understand the characteristics and status of our patients’ disorders (such as measuring vision, visual fields and retinal function) takes several hours; when I sit down to review those data with my patients, I want to have the time to both go through what we learned from the clinical exam and then talk about what we do next,” he says. “Those discussions can be lengthy, but I want to make sure my patients not only understand the results of their clinical tests, but also the progress that we’re making towards finding cures for their specific retinal dystrophy or disease.”
According to Dr. Pierce, the Ocular Genomics Institute is using next-generation sequencing technology to enhance the department’s ability to carry out genetic research. “This vastly improves the odds of finding the specific gene that is causing an individual’s disease,” Dr. Pierce points out, “and means we can give patients a definitive diagnosis and a more accurate prognosis of the course of their disease. For patients, it removes a lot of the uncertainty and anguish that comes from living with an undiagnosed disease. It’s also very helpful to families who may want to know what the risks are of passing their disease on to their children.”
Recent studies have demonstrated that gene therapy can work for inherited retinal disorders, and researchers are using this knowledge as a springboard for further study. In particular, Dr. Pierce participated in one of the clinical trials showing that gene therapy works for the RPE65 genetic form of Leber Congenital Amaurosis, an early onset form of retinal degeneration. He and his colleagues intend to apply this same approach to many other types of retinal disease. “Right now, there are clinical trials in progress for four more types of retinal disease, and we want patients to be prepared. These opportunities will only grow as gene therapy research continues to expand,” he says.
Even though gene therapy treatments are not yet available for the majority of patients with inherited retinal degenerations, Dr. Pierce notes, “It’s a very exciting time in our field because we’ve learned a lot about the genetic causes of these diseases and are now on the threshold of translating that information into treatments for these disorders.” In fact, Dr. Pierce has noticed that his conversations with patients are becoming more optimistic: “Instead of telling them, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ I can say, ‘We think there will be a therapy for your disease and now is the time to start working towards that goal.’” And when there are potential clinical trials in which they might participate, or, any newly available FDA-approved drugs, Dr. Pierce is able to keep patients apprised of these new developments.
Dr. Pierce shares his passion for ophthalmology through teaching and leading research fellows to develop cures. In addition, he is developing training programs in ophthalmic genetics for residents and fellows, which will in turn, inspire and train more specialists in this growing field.
Contact Dr. Pierce’s office at 617-573-3621
View Dr. Pierce’s online bio for more information.