Welcome New Faculty: Dr. Luca Della Santina

Q Why are the tiny connections between retinal nerve cells so important?

A They are the main way neurons communicate information to the brain. In neurodegenerative diseases, synapses fail before the cells die, making them strong candidates for early treatment.

Q You’ve developed novel tools to identify retinal synapses. How so?

A The human retina is estimated to have billions of synapses. To identify and locate each one, I developed ObjectFinder, an open source application that uses deep learning artificial intelligence to recognize small objects in large three-dimensional images and plot their properties. Our confocal microscope allowed me to reconstruct images of retinal synapses. With these tools, the dream of identifying every single synapse in the retina is finally within our reach.

Q How will your research help patients?

A With this broad-scale data on synapses, we can look for patterns of synaptic loss specific to various retinal degenerations, leveraging their functional role to create early screening and targeted therapies. I’m also using ObjectFinder to recognize the hallmarks of trachoma in photos of patients’ eyelids taken in remote areas where trachoma is a major vision threat. This collaboration with the Proctor Foundation will allow healthcare providers to more quickly identify rural areas requiring prophylaxis to halt disease progression and blindness.

Q How did computer engineering become your primary research method?

A Coding has always been a hobby. As the computational power of home PCs increased, my coding evolved from creating simple games to creating my own tools for analyzing large datasets.

Q What else are you passionate about?

A I love landscape photography, especially taking my camera to the astounding California coast. I recently discovered the beauty of Sea Ranch and hope to spend more time there with my wife, Allison.