Theodore Wensel

Welch Chair in Chemistry
Baylor College of Medicine 

Ted Wensel has devoted his career to understanding sensation at the molecular level, with a particular focus on vision. His goal is to understand the fundamental molecular mechanisms of sensation and how mutations in the molecules involved lead to blindness and other diseases in order to open the door to new therapies.

“I want to understand the chemistry of it – how the body and our cells sense the outside world,” he said.

Dr. Wensel began by contributing to working out the biochemistry of the vision process, detailing key components of the biochemical cascade that lead from the first molecule being activated by light to actual “seeing” in the brain – an achievement that took decades of research.

This work has allowed development of a mathematical model of the process, which makes it possible to change one parameter at a time and test its impact in mice. Dr. Wensel’s team has used this approach to better understand the process by which the time resolution of visual perception allows us to see motion. His students discovered the molecular complex which regulates it by turning off a GTP-binding protein. By knocking out or increasing levels of this complex in mice, the time resolution of their dim light vision became slower or faster.

Another research focus is retinitis pigmentosa, RP, a hereditary disease in which patients first lose their dim light vision and eventually go blind. To test potential therapies, Dr. Wensel and his colleagues developed mice with the human rhodopsin gene, both with and without the most common mutation causing RP. He also sends these specialized mice, the best animal model for this disease, to other researchers and pharmaceutical companies.

In other work, the lab has applied new imaging methods – cryoelectron tomography and STORM (super-resolution stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy) – that provide a nanoscale view of the G-protein-coupled receptors and ion channels involved in sensation. Using these imaging techniques, Dr. Wensel’s team has been able to detail the internal structure of cilia and discover previously unknown compartments within the cilia. This breakthrough has allowed them to more precisely pinpoint the location of proteins involved in retinal diseases, including Bardet-Biedl syndrome and retinitis pigmentosa.

“There is a large group of disease called ciliopathies that are caused by genetic defects in the components of the structure of cilia. Our hope is that with a better understanding of the disease mechanisms that lead to retinal degeneration and blindness, we can develop therapies to prevent disease progression and even restore normal sight,” he said.

Dr. Wensel credits his first Welch grant with helping establish his lab and begin his research. As chair of Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Chemistry & Molecular Biology, he credits the Welch research grant program as a “great” recruiting tool for new faculty.

“Welch’s impact on chemistry-related research in Texas is incalculable,” Dr. Wensel said. “It is an opportunity you only find in Texas and it has helped build the robust scientific research happening here at Baylor and across the state.”