Divorce Attorney in Charleston SC

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If there were one universal truth" it would be that every family is different. We all have our own set of challenges to face and changes to go through. Sometimes" those changes are happy" like when a new baby is born. Other times" these changes involve uncertainty and loss" like in the event of a divorce.

If you are having to go through the pain of divorce" deal with a complicated custody issue" or are handling a different family-related legal matter" you might need help. At Cobb Dill & Hammett" LLC" we understand that family issues are hard. Many of the family law clients that we work for have big questions about the future" leaving them over-stressed and full of worry. They are concerned about their children" their marriage" or both. They are wrestling with uncertainty and anxiety" having been served confusing documents that don't make sense. Sound familiar? A family law attorney in Charleston" SC" can help" whether you need a level-headed moderator or a trusted advocate in the courtroom.

At Cobb Dill & Hammett" LLC" we have decades of combined experience serving the needs of families" from divorce proceedings to family formation issues. Our team is fiercely committed to our clients" and with a dedicated focus" stays up-to-date on the nuanced world of family law in Charleston. If you're looking for personal attention" unbiased representation" and a responsive family law attorney" look no further than our law firm.

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If you're unsure of whether you need a family law lawyers in Charleston" ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you getting married?
  • Are you thinking about divorce?
  • Has your spouse served you with legal papers?
  • Are your kids not receiving the support that they are entitled to?

If you answered "yes" to any of the questions above" know that we are here to help you figure out your next steps. With CDH Law Firm by your side" you can have the confidence to face even the most difficult family law issues. All of our attorneys have years of experience" are incredibly responsive" and fight for your family's rights. We are happy to take as much time as you need to answer questions and help put your mind at ease for whatever lies ahead.

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Our firm specializes in a wide range of family law cases" including:

  • Divorce
  • Child Custody
  • Alimony
  • Adoptions
  • Child Support
  • Mediation
  • Property Division
  • More

If you have been left to manage a foreign family law situation" it's time to call Cobb Dill & Hammett" LLC. We will sit down with you for an hour at absolutely no cost - because we understand what you're going through and know that you need answers" not another bill to pay.

To help provide you with a basic understanding of family law" keep reading for in-depth explanations on our areas of expertise.

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Divorce lawyer in
Charleston" SC.

At Cobb Dill & Hammett" LLC" we know all-too-well that a "one size fits all" approach isn't going to work very well for your unique situation. That's why we approach each divorce case from a personalized standpoint - something that we feel like each of our clients deserves.

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Our goal is to help solve your family law issues and focus on your needs when your divorce is finalized. We will help develop a strategy for:
  • Meeting your post-divorce needs and objectives
  • Dividing marital property for maximum benefit
  • Maximizing time spent with your child as part of your divorce's parenting plan
  • Strengthen your role as a decision-maker for your child
  • Navigating your divorce proceedings and minimizing financial and emotional costs

By working together" our divorce law firm will help you rebuild your life and secure a better future for your family.

Divorces in South Carolina
- Different Than Other States

Unlike divorce law in other states" South Carolina divorce law doesn't allow spouses to receive an instant no-fault divorce. One or both spouses in the marriage must establish a legally acceptable reason for a divorce to happen. Grounds for a divorce in Charleston" SC include:

  • Desertion
  • Physical Cruelty
  • Habitual Drunkenness
  • Separation for One Year or More
  • Adultery
 Divorce Attorney Charleston, SC

If you or your spouse do not have the necessary grounds for divorce in Charleston" our family law firm can file a Separate Maintenance and Support action. This step lets the court order child custody" alimony" and marital bills until you can file for your divorce. During this period" Cobb Dill & Hammett" LLC gathers pertinent info on your spouse's character and assets that can strengthen your case" should it be necessary.

Common Issues Associated
with Divorces in Charleston

A divorce in Charleston means more than the end of a marriage. It involves dividing the parties' debts and assets" determines child support and custody parameters" and can establish alimony. At Cobb Dill & Hammett" LLC" many of our clients are able to reach agreements with their spouse to resolve these issues. Reaching an agreement lets both parties customize the terms of their divorce to conserve resources" avoid trial" and meet the family's needs.

Sometimes" however" two spouses cannot or will not come to terms with an agreement. In these situations" a trial is possible" and litigation is necessary. Our family law attorneys in Charleston" SC. are highly experienced litigators and are well-equipped to handle any disputes revealed in the conference or courtroom.

Common divorce issues include:

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1.

Child Custody and Visitation

One of the most heart-wrenching" difficult decisions for parents going through a divorce is resolving child custody and visitation issues. Child custody refers to how much time each parent will spend with their child" and whether they can make decisions for them. According to South Carolina law" child custody and visitation time are based on what is best for the child.

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2.

Child Support

Like other U.S states" a formula is used in South Carolina to determine how much child support a person must pay. This formula recommends the amount of child support based on factors like how much income the parents make" the cost of childcare" and the obligation to support children from other relationships.

 Law Firm Charleston, SC
3.

Alimony

In South Carolina" there is no formula to determine how much alimony a person must pay. However" courts consider several factors when deciding if alimony is needed" how much alimony should be paid" and how long a spouse must pay it. Those factors include each spouse's ability and need to pay alimony" how long the marriage lasted" and any marital misconduct that occurred. To make matters more confusing" there are different alimony types" including lump sum" rehabilitative" and reimbursement.

 Attorney Charleston, SC
4.

Distribution of Property

In South Carolina" marital property is the property that each spouse amasses from the date of the wedding to the time a spouse files for divorce. That property can often include marital debt. In a South Carolina divorce" the courts will order an equitable division of property" meaning "fair" under all circumstances but not necessarily equal.

 Divorce Lawyer Charleston, SC

Understanding Child Custody in Charleston" SC

As mentioned above" decisions that involve child custody and visitation can be contentious for parents" both emotionally and legally. As experienced" empathetic divorce lawyers" we understand how difficult this process can be. When we work with clients going through child custody battles" we always make it a point to be with them through the ups and downs" to help them stay centered. Whether you are the husband or wife in your divorce" we share a common goal: finding an effective way to support your children and assure their wellbeing.

In South Carolina" child custody is a loaded term. In the most general definition" child custody determines when each parent is responsible for the physical care of the child and how much authority each parent has" to make decisions in their child's life.

No two child custody cases are the same" but a negotiated custody arrangement is usually preferred in the judge's eyes" as each parent has input in the process. If the parents cannot come to an amicable resolution" their fate is left in the hands of a Family Court Judge in South Carolina. The focus of child custody law is always on what is in the "best interests" of the child. What the judge determines to be the "best interests" changes depending on the judge.

There are different variations of "custody" in South Carolina (or custody arrangements)" each with varying degrees of authority. When you consult with our family law attorneys at Cobb Dill & Hammett" LLC" we will go over the child custody process in detail and touch on each distinction to eliminate any confusion you have.

  • Help develop cooperative solutions to disputes or mediate when needed
  • Create an equitable parenting plan
  • Discuss the implications of the different forms of joint and sole custody
  • Problems related to child support
  • Modify court orders if you or your child's circumstances change
  • Enforcement of visitation and custody agreements
  • Much more
Many of the family law clients that walk into our office have big questions that are leaving them full of stress and worry. <

Many of the family law clients that walk into our office have big questions that are leaving them full of stress and worry.

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Estate Planning Law Charleston, SC

Understanding Child Support
in Charleston" SC

When children are involved in divorce cases" child support is often ordered. Several factors can impact whether child support is ordered" like the income-earning potential of the child's parents" any custody arrangements that are created" and what needs the child may have.

At Cobb Dill & Hammett" LLC" we have years of experience with child support issues relating to:

  • Cases where child support is needed for stay-at-home parents
  • Modifications and enforcement of child support mandates
  • Resolving support and custody disputes
  • Mediation arrangements to reach an agreement on child support. Compared to litigation" going
  • the mediated route often means less stress and is more cost-effective than trial.

When you trust our family law firm in Charleston for representation" we can help calculate an estimate of how much child support you or your spouse may be ordered to pay. We can also perform a needs-based analysis in cases that involve large amounts of income. At the end of the day" our goal is to make this frustrating process as stress-free as possible for you" so that you can focus on living life and caring for your child.

Understanding Alimony in
Charleston" SC

Alimony (sometimes called spousal support or maintenance) is ordered by the court or negotiated between parties. This kind of spousal support has many factors" like the income of both spouses" how long they were married" and the age of each spouse. Like child custody and child support" trusted legal guidance is strongly recommended if you are facing potential alimony payments. Our family law attorneys will help you reach amicable arrangements for fair and appropriate alimony payments.

At Cobb Dill & Hammett" LLC" your family law attorney in Charleston" SC" will help protect your interests and rights regarding:

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  • Alimony and business assets
  • Permanent or long-term alimony
  • Significant alimony in high-asset divorces
  • Modifications to alimony arrangements when you or your spouse's circumstances change
  • Enforcement of spousal support mandates" when needed

Understanding Division of
Property in Charleston" SC

When there are no children" marital property" or issues of alimony" divorces often proceed smoothly between amicable spouses. However" most divorces in South Carolina are much more complex. Typically" divorce involves a union between spouses that lasts for years and involves substantial marital property. This property can be personal property" real estate" family businesses" debts" out-of-state property" debts" bank accounts" and more.

In these nuanced situations" the applicable parties need assistance dividing their property. This help most often comes from seasoned family law attorneys like Cobb Dill & Hammett" LLC.

When it comes to distribution of property" certain types of properties that are controversial" even under the property division rules in South Carolina. South Carolina is an equitable distribution state" meaning that marital property is divided equitably but not always equally.

If you are going through a divorce" it's important that you are aware of the following assets and the common issues their division presents:

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Pensions

Pensions:

Generally" pensions are the second-largest asset in a marriage. When there are sufficient alternative income sources to compensate the non-pension holder" South Carolina divorce courts may leave the pension rights with the spouse who earned it" with future distribution available. Otherwise" a divorce court may enter a Qualified Domestic Relations Order requiring the pension administrator to pay both the former spouse and worker.

Family Home

Family Home:

The family home" or the primary residential property owned by the divorcing couple" is usually considered a marriage's biggest asset. Dividing this kind of property can be complex and frustrating" especially when there are kids involved.

Many divorcing couples have a hard time reaching an agreement on property division. Because the division of property depends on the complexity of you or your spouse's assets and liabilities" it is crucial to consult with an experienced family law attorney to provide guidance.

Latest News in Charleston, SC

Newly integrated tool enables better tracking of clinical trial metrics

Before new treatments can reach the clinic, they must be tested in clinical trials to see if they are safe and effective. Trials that do not enroll enough participants present roadblocks for advancing care to the clinic because they offer no scientific insight, waste money and time and inflate the costs of new treatments.Improving clinical trial efficiency – ensuring robust patient enrollment while minimizing costs and waste – is a high priority for the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) consortium, which ser...

Before new treatments can reach the clinic, they must be tested in clinical trials to see if they are safe and effective. Trials that do not enroll enough participants present roadblocks for advancing care to the clinic because they offer no scientific insight, waste money and time and inflate the costs of new treatments.

Improving clinical trial efficiency – ensuring robust patient enrollment while minimizing costs and waste – is a high priority for the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) consortium, which serves as a laboratory for testing new ways to speed the translation of care into the clinic.

In a recent article in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science (JCTS), a team at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), which is the academic home of the South Carolina Clinical & Translational Research (SCTR) Institute, describes an integrated tool that is helping them to track clinical trial enrollment and cost effectiveness across the MUSC Health System. The tool integrates a commercial clinical trial management system (CTMS), with the MUSC-created Research Integrated Network of Systems (RINS), which tracks study-level data across otherwise siloed systems. The integration enables study teams, administrators and evaluators to ensure that the trials are the best fit for the enterprise and to track the progress of their studies.

“We needed a platform where we could track all of our studies that were recruiting patients, all the patients who were enrolled in research and whether they were also clinical patients at MUSC." -- Royce Sampson

“We needed a platform where we could track all of our studies that were recruiting patients, all the patients who were enrolled in research and whether they were also clinical patients at MUSC. Additionally, bringing a clinical trials management system into RINS will allow us to really look at financials, particularly for industry trials,” said Royce Sampson, lead author of the JCTS article. Sampson is the director of the Office of Clinical Research (OCR) and chief operations officer and associate director of SCTR.

RINS was created by SCTR and the Biomedical Informatics Center (BMIC) team to capture protocol-level data across systems. None of the existing systems were capturing patient associations, so a CTMS was identified to fill that gap. Integrating a CTMS provided the missing piece of the puzzle, according to Jillian Harvey, Ph.D., senior author of the JCTS article. Harvey is the evaluation director for SCTR and an associate professor in the College of Health Professions.

“In the past, we’ve had challenges accessing the data needed to track clinical trial metrics,” said Harvey. “CTMS/RINS allows us to get our hands around tracking and reporting our outcomes and being efficient with our data and evaluation.”

“In the past, we’ve had challenges accessing the data needed to track clinical trial metrics. CTMS/RINS allows us to get our hands around tracking and reporting our outcomes and being efficient with our data and evaluation.” -- Jillian Harvey, Ph.D.

Previously, tracking clinical trial metrics too often meant manually pulling and calculating data. Teams would pass on whatever data sets they had. Leila Forney, DNP, an associate director in the OCR, recalls the arduous job of pulling together data for a CTSA grant renewal, which took nine months. Now, the process is much easier.

“Having an electronic platform for clinical trial data really helps you think about the metrics you’re seeing and determine where you can make improvements,” said Forney. “It also helps us ensure that the data is accurate.”

The implementation of the CTMS was led by Steve Shapiro.

The newly integrated tool also aids MUSC researchers in choosing the appropriate trials and right-sizing them – setting a realistic enrollment goal – for the institution.

“CTMS/RINS is helping us take an even more informed approach to the trials that we’re selecting, where we’re placing them, where the greatest needs are and where the gaps are,” said Signe Denmark, an associate director in the OCR. “We’re becoming better overall at knowing what our clinical trial portfolio looks like and how we manage it.”

With the enterprise’s recent expansion into more South Carolina counties as part of MUSC Health’s Regional Health Network (RHN), financial and patient accrual data available through CTMS/RINS can help clinical research leaders to select not just the right trials but the right location for those trials.

“We’re exploring how we can offer more research opportunities to these rural communities,” said Sampson. “People in Florence, Marion, Lancaster and Chester counties live hundreds of miles from the nearest academic medical center or cancer treatment center, where clinical trials are typically offered. The CTMS/RINS integration could help us to select the appropriate trials to bring to them. That’s going to be the innovation.”

The integration also standardizes data collection across study teams and primes them to continue updating their data.

“With a system like a clinical trials management system, when study teams start using this as a main source to track their study, they are responsible for keeping their information updated. So, it’s more transparent, too,” said Wenjun He, Ph.D., research assistant professor at BMIC.

MUSC can report these performance metrics to the trial sponsors, giving the institution’s study teams a competitive edge.

“CTMS/RINS is helping us take an even more informed approach to the trials that we’re selecting, where we’re placing them, where the greatest needs are and where the gaps are.” -- Signe Denmark

Early adopters of CTMS/RINS were the OCR, which used it to launch and track COVID-19 clinical trials, and the Hollings Cancer Center (HCC) Clinical Trials Office.

“Hollings Cancer Center began using the new clinical trials management system in the Fall of 2020 to maintain all study- and patient-level data,” said Tricia Bentz, administrative director for the Clinical Trials Office at HCC. “The CTMS/RINS integration has improved the data quality of study details within institutional systems and generated new efficiencies and work tools for management and staff. The integrated data structure is a promising foundation for real-time reporting and support of data-driven strategic planning.”

Since March, all new study teams have been required to enroll their studies into the new CTMS. This process will be ongoing and supported by OCR staff. Continuous improvements will be made to MUSC’s CTMS/RINS integration. Plans are already underway to take it to the next level and create dashboards to provide transparent, easily accessible data to support study teams, explained Sampson.

The CTMS/RINS integration will not only benefit MUSC’s clinical trials but could also provide a model for CTSAs nationwide, albeit one that would need to be tailored to each institution’s particular data ecosystem.

“It’s in the core of our mission to make the process from discovery to population impact faster and more efficient, with better outcomes,” said Harvey. “This just rolls into the mission of the CTSA as an area we need to look at.”

Reference

Sampson, R., Shapiro, S., He, W., Denmark, S., Kirchoff, K., Hutson, K., . . . Harvey, J. (2022). An integrated approach to improve clinical trial efficiency: Linking a clinical trial management system into the Research Integrated Network of Systems. Journal of Clinical and Translational Science,6(1), E63. doi:10.1017/cts.2022.382

Sydney Bollinger Sydney Bollinger is the special projects coordinator for the South Carolina Clinical & Translational Research Institute at MUSC.

Categories: Research, Innovation

Teachers leaving public schools for reasons other than pay

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Teachers are leaving public education in droves. The latest data compiled by SC for Ed, a teacher advocacy group, shows more than 3,400 open positions across the state.As of June 12, that number is closer to 650 for just the Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester District Two school districts.Vacancies by district:*Source: SC for EdThe number of teachers leaving year over year is starting to level out, however.This year the three districts show a 10.4% turnover rate on average, down f...

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Teachers are leaving public education in droves. The latest data compiled by SC for Ed, a teacher advocacy group, shows more than 3,400 open positions across the state.

As of June 12, that number is closer to 650 for just the Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester District Two school districts.

Vacancies by district:

*Source: SC for Ed

The number of teachers leaving year over year is starting to level out, however.

This year the three districts show a 10.4% turnover rate on average, down from an average of 12.5 percent last year. However, the number of teachers fleeing public education (and education in general) is concerning for advocates who have been pushing state leaders to dedicate more resources to educators at every level.

Abby Watson is among those leaving the Charleston County School District this year. She worked at Goodwin Elementary for a year before deciding to leave.

She says keeping up with ever-evolving district initiatives did not give her the feeling of stability. Specifically, she mentioned the plan to merge Goodwin Elementary with Lambs and Hunley Park in the next few years.

“There was a lot of uncertainty for my job,” Watson said. “We would have to reapply and all of that. It kind of freaked me out so I wanted to start looking, just in case, to have some security.”

She says the primary motivator for her was to move to a district that more aligns with her values. She is now set to start teaching second grade at a private Catholic school in West Ashley.

“They provide a little bit more freedom for the teachers as well,” Watson said. “It’s not so scripted. We can kind of take what the suggested curriculum is and make it into our own and provide what I think is sometimes a better education.”

The idea of large school districts across the state being out of touch with their employees and constantly implementing changing strategies is not a new criticism. Sydney Van Bulck, another teacher at Goodwin this year, says the expectations put on teachers are unrealistic.

“For educators, it’s a lack of respect,” Van Bulck said. “It’s a lack of funding. Really the system is being pitted against teachers. Morale is low, pay is low and it’s all kind of compacting together.”

Watson agrees.

“I think the public schools have a lot of really great programs, but I think there’s a lot of pressure to teach to the test,” Watson said. “We have to make sure that we get our scores up and have to make sure that everything is perfect and it’s ultimately too much. I can’t handle the pressure.”

Unlike Watson, Van Bulck is leaving education entirely. While Watson is leaving to find a job with a better culture and more security, Van Bulck’s reason for leaving, like so many others, is financial.

“The ultimate reason that made me make the decision was the pay,” Van Bulck said. “With the housing crisis in Charleston the way that it is right now and as a single person living here on my own, I can’t afford housing and be a teacher here in Charleston.”

While pay is routinely cited as a top reason teachers leave, the turnover data does not necessarily support the idea that starting pay is the most important factor. The Charleston County School District has the highest starting salary and the highest turnover rate.

Starting salary by district:

*Source: SC for Ed

Cost of living seems to be the determining factor when weighed against starting pay. According to BestPlaces.net, Berkeley County has the lowest cost of living, followed by Dorchester and then Charleston counties.

The Charleston County School District has several programs designed to retrain and recruit teachers. You can find more on some of those programs here:

Copyright 2022 WCSC. All rights reserved.

Charleston to consider making dog tethering illegal

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The City of Charleston is reviewing its animal cruelty rules and is expected to present new guidelines to the city council that, among other things, would make tethering illegal.Tethering is the practice of tying up an animal to restrict its ability to move.The exact language of any proposal has not yet been released, but the idea has some traction with people like Virginia Ellison.She started an online petition before she knew the city was working on making tethering illegal. She says leaving d...

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The City of Charleston is reviewing its animal cruelty rules and is expected to present new guidelines to the city council that, among other things, would make tethering illegal.

Tethering is the practice of tying up an animal to restrict its ability to move.

The exact language of any proposal has not yet been released, but the idea has some traction with people like Virginia Ellison.

She started an online petition before she knew the city was working on making tethering illegal. She says leaving dogs tied up outside in hundred-degree temperatures is animal cruelty.

“I thought that chaining animals in Charleston was already illegal and considered inhumane until I was recently was exposed to someone in my community who chained their dog 24/7 in all types of weather - in the heat like today,” Ellison said. “It is cruel to the animals. They depend on us for their physical and mental wellbeing, and it’s our obligation to take care of them.”

Tethering has been made illegal in other cities. Most recently, Georgetown approved banning the practice in April.

Meredith Jones is the medical director for Pet Helpers, a 501(c)3 adoption center and spay/neuter clinic in Charleston. She says leaving dogs tied up can be extremely dangerous.

“They can get tangled up in the tethers . . . which can cause all sorts of wounds and pretty serious issues with their legs, tails, even death if they get caught up too much and strangulate themselves,” Jones said, noting that sometimes the tethers and collars become imbedded in the dog’s flesh. “It requires a lot of supportive care, sometimes surgery to fix that, and a lot of time the dog has some variation of a scar for the rest of their life.”

Pet Helpers also runs a program called Unchain Charleston that helps pets with fencing and dog houses, so pets don’t have to be tethered when they are outside.

It is unknown when the changes to the current ordinance would be sent to city leaders.

Copyright 2022 WCSC. All rights reserved.

SC Aquarium celebrates introduction of funding legislation on World Sea Turtle Day

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- June 16 is World Sea Turtle Day, and the South Carolina Aquarium is celebrating coming one step closer to closing the funding gap for sea turtle conservation efforts.The SC Aquarium, in partnership with the National Aquarium and New England Aquarium, has been working with federal legislators to address the lack of funding given to organizations that provide sea turtle response and rehabilitation.New legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate on Thursday by Sens. Markey (D-Mass.) and Cornyn (R-Texas) coul...

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- June 16 is World Sea Turtle Day, and the South Carolina Aquarium is celebrating coming one step closer to closing the funding gap for sea turtle conservation efforts.

The SC Aquarium, in partnership with the National Aquarium and New England Aquarium, has been working with federal legislators to address the lack of funding given to organizations that provide sea turtle response and rehabilitation.

New legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate on Thursday by Sens. Markey (D-Mass.) and Cornyn (R-Texas) could be the answer.

The Sea Turtle Rescue Assistance Act creates a new grant program at the Department of Commerce to fund the rescue and recovery of sea turtles across the United States.

The legislation authorizes an additional $5 million in new funding annually from 2023 through 2028.

“We have a responsibility to protect the threatened and endangered sea turtles that call our waters home,” Sen. Markey said in a press release. “As our sea turtles continue to face greater existential threats, this legislation will help to keep our marine diversity alive. This funding will support rescue and recovery efforts, as well as the study of sea turtles so that future generations can know these animals as friends, not fiction.”

Officials from the SC Aquarium said the program will “fill a crucial gap in sea turtle conservation by providing much-needed direct support” to groups like the Aquarium’s own Sea Turtle Care Center.

The Sea Turtle Care Center treats sea turtles for a variety of ailments, including debilitated turtle syndrome, predation and boat strike wounds, injuries from interactions with fishing gear, and cold-stun. Officials say it costs an average of $35 per day for each patient’s treatment.

“The South Carolina Aquarium has been dedicated to rehabilitating sick and injured sea turtles for over 20 years. Sea turtles are ambassadors for conservation and drive awareness and actionable change for a better tomorrow,” South Carolina Aquarium President and CEO Kevin Mills said. “Their stories are critical to connecting people to water, wildlife and wild places, and we are grateful to work alongside National Aquarium and New England Aquarium in the movement to secure federal financial assistance to continue this meaningful work.”

To date, the center has successfully rehabilitated and released 355 sea turtles.

Restoring vision by recharging cells' batteries

In May, an interdisciplinary MUSC research team won an inaugural Blue Sky Award, which provided $100,000 in funding for its project to restore vision in patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) by recharging the eye cells’ batteries. The Blue Sky Award was created to encourage high-risk, high-reward research that has the potential to make a profound impact on patient care but is unlikely to attract traditional funding due to the difficulties of the projects.The team is led by ...

In May, an interdisciplinary MUSC research team won an inaugural Blue Sky Award, which provided $100,000 in funding for its project to restore vision in patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) by recharging the eye cells’ batteries. The Blue Sky Award was created to encourage high-risk, high-reward research that has the potential to make a profound impact on patient care but is unlikely to attract traditional funding due to the difficulties of the projects.

The team is led by Baerbel Rohrer, Ph.D., of the College of Medicine, and Andrew Jakymiw, Ph.D., of the College of Dental Medicine, and included their graduate students Kyrie Wilson and Charles Holjencin. Rohrer is the Endowed Chair of Gene and Pharmaceutical Treatment of Retinal Degenerative Disease. Jakymiw is an expert in developing cell-penetrating peptides for drug delivery.

Together, they intend to tackle a disease that affects more than 10 million Americans: AMD. The disease causes vision to worsen slowly and eventually leads to blindness. Current therapies are inadequate, as they can only lessen the symptoms and aim, at best, to postpone the loss of vision. Existing therapies also require patients to return again and again for treatment.

“We knew that if we could treat the disease at the root cause, and not just the symptoms, that would be a huge step forward in regenerative medicine." -- Kyrie Wilson

Team members weren’t satisfied with just slowing down the disease. They wanted to develop a curative therapy that could protect and even restore vision.

“We knew that if we could treat the disease at the root cause, and not just the symptoms, that would be a huge step forward in regenerative medicine,” said Wilson.

At its root, AMD is caused by an insufficient supply of energy to eye cells.

“Every single activity of a cell requires energy,” said Rohrer. “Once you lose that energy, you will lose proper function of the cells. That will eventually lead to disease and vision loss.”

“This new approach is like a quantum leap. If this were to work, it would just significantly change not just the trajectory of my lab but the trajectory of treatment for AMD." -- Baerbel Rohrer, Ph.D.

Mitochondria are the batteries that supply energy to cells, and they have their own DNA – mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA – to help them to do that. When their DNA becomes damaged, mitochondria cease to function properly and cannot provide cells with the energy they need.

Over time or because of stress, errors can be introduced into mtDNA as it copies itself. Rohrer likens the process to the game of “telephone.” In the game, a person whispers a word into the ear of another person. That person then whispers the word into the ear of the next person and so on down the line.

“Whatever ends up after five people is probably not the word that you picked to start with,” said Rohrer. “And it’s pretty much the same thing with copying mtDNA.”

Instead of trying to target and fix many copy errors, Rohrer and Wilson wondered whether a better approach would be to prevent the mistakes in the first place. They could do so by providing the mitochondria a new blueprint, or template, for copying their DNA, essentially “resetting” the word in the telephone game.

“You need a new template,” said Wilson. “You need to go back and have the perfect words again and know what you’re trying to say.”

"Essentially, we have a delivery mechanism that carries its own instructions for cell delivery." -- Charles Holjencin

Rohrer and Wilson realized that they would need a vehicle to deliver the template to the mitochondria. It would have to be able to dodge the body’s immune system and be accepted by the mitochondria. They reached out to Jakymiw, who had expertise with small nucleic acid-based drug delivery.

“We had actually never delivered anything that large to that point,” said Jakymiw. “I mean we’re talking about like 16 kilobases, which is a pretty big molecule.”

Although the two laboratories had had initial discussions, it was the announcement of the Blue Sky Award that solidified the collaboration and jump started the project.

“Some outcomes of the preliminary work that has evolved over the last few months suggest that we can potentially deliver this large amount of DNA and target it efficiently enough to restore vision for individuals affected by AMD,” continued Jakymiw.

"You can also design the small proteins so that they can recognize a particular ‘zip code’ and deliver the cargo to that particular site within the cell.” -- Andrew Jakymiw, Ph.D.

Jakymiw and Holjencin decorate the surface of the mtDNA with small proteins that carry instructions for the cells and mitochondria on how to take up this newly formed nanoparticle.

“Essentially, we have a delivery mechanism that carries its own instructions for cell delivery,” said Holjencin, who is creating the nanoparticles being used in the project.

“You can also design the small proteins so that they can recognize a particular ‘zip code’ and deliver the cargo to that particular site within the cell,” said Jakymiw.

These small proteins also provide a potential “invisibility cloak” to protect the nanoparticles from the body’s immune system.

To date, the team has shown that the small proteins can package the mtDNA within nanoparticles and deploy it to the struggling mitochondria. They have also shown that it persists there for at least four weeks. In previous studies, mtDNA disappeared after just 48 hours.

“We will eventually end up looking for the presence of mtDNA at probably eight weeks, maybe even out to 16 weeks,” said Wilson.

“And obviously what we would want for humans is that that this translates into many years as opposed to having to repeat these treatments on a regular basis,” said Rohrer.

The hope is that introducing the template would set off a series of events that could lead to restored vision. The mitochondria might share the template with its neighbors, which could, likewise, pass it on. As the quality of mtDNA improves in more and more mitochondria, they could again supply sufficient energy to eye cells, restoring vision.

“This new approach is like a quantum leap. If this were to work, it would just significantly change not just the trajectory of my lab but the trajectory of treatment for AMD,” said Rohrer.

The collaborative biorepository project between MUSC and SCSU is expanding with the hopes of reaching more medically underserved communities.

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