The American Health Assistance Foundation (AHAF, www.ahaf.org), a nonprofit organization with a history of funding breakthrough research on age-related vision diseases, announced today that it has awarded 21 new grants totaling $2.1 million to scientists worldwide who are studying glaucoma and macular degeneration. The two conditions are the leading causes of irreversible blindness in the world.
"AHAF is known for pinpointing some of the world's most promising vision research and funding early-stage, innovative projects on these two devastating diseases," said Stacy Pagos Haller, AHAF's president and CEO. "Over the years, AHAF has awarded more than $120 million to advance research, including more than $33.6 million in grants addressing glaucoma and macular degeneration," she noted.
Guy Eakin, Ph.D., AHAF's vice president for scientific affairs, added: "This year's vision research grant recipients are at the forefront of scientific knowledge about these two diseases. Many have developed unique tools and procedures to examine, cell by cell and gene by gene, the causes of and contributors to vision loss. Others are on the verge of developing new therapies to treat these diseases."
National Glaucoma Research Grants
Glaucoma refers to a group of eye disorders often having few or no symptoms in the early stages but eventually causing harm to the optic nerve (the bundle of nerve fibers carrying information from the eye to the brain). Increasingly, researchers are examining this eye-brain connection. With early diagnosis and treatment, the condition can be controlled.
Tragically, people may not realize they have the disease until it has caused permanent visual damage. Of the 3 million Americans living with glaucoma, 2.7 million have its most common form, open angle glaucoma, and as many as half may not know they have it. Worldwide, glaucoma is a leading cause of irreversible blindness, affecting more than 60 million people.
Subjects addressed in the 11 new glaucoma research grants funded by AHAF include:
- Studying the Increased Risk of Glaucoma with Alzheimer's Disease:
Peter P. De Deyn, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Antwerp, Belgium, is examining how Alzheimer's patients may be at increased risk of developing glaucoma. De Deyn's theory is that people with Alzheimer's disease may have reduced pressure in their cerebrospinal fluid (or CSF, which bathes the brain, eyes, and spinal cord), which may be caused by the brain shrinkage seen in Alzheimer's disease. The combination of reduced CSF pressure and a high eye pressure may play an important role in the development of glaucoma in Alzheimer's disease patients. De Deyn is conducting a human clinical trial, as well as animal studies to understand disease mechanisms.
- Neuroprotection: How to Survive or Prevent the Death of Cells Affecting Vision:
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and Duke University are investigating different ways to promote the survival of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), the optic nerve cells normally damaged in glaucoma.
JHU scientist Derek Welsbie, M.D., Ph.D., will work to understand which genes send signals that trigger the death of RGCs. Using automated microscopes and robots, he will turn off tens of thousands of genes, one by one, to see what makes the cells healthier. Zhiyong Yang, M.D., Ph.D., of JHU, along with co-principal investigator Donald J. Zack, M.D., Ph.D., will investigate whether a novel target protein can promote RGC survival, with implications for new drug treatments. Yang is the recipient of AHAF's 2012 Douglas H. Johnson award, given to the top-scoring grant applicant in glaucoma research. Shannath Merbs, M.D., Ph.D., of JHU, along with co-principal investigator Raymond A. Enke, Ph.D., will study DNA changes caused in part by environmental factors and whether manipulation of that process can improve RGC survival.
At Duke, Paloma B. Liton, Ph.D., and her co-principal investigator Molly Walsh, M.D, will examine why and how certain cells appear to effectively "eat themselves" under stress conditions and whether this self-eating process protects the optic nerve against chronic high eye pressure, or makes it more vulnerable to such pressure. Liton is also one of three recipients of AHAF's 2012 Thomas R. Lee award, given for outstanding research in glaucoma. Other Lee awardees are John Kuchtey, Ph.D. of Vanderbilt University, conducting research on inherited forms of glaucoma, and Jason Meyer, Ph.D., of Indiana-Purdue University Indianapolis, examining potential cell replacement therapies.
- Developing Drug "Chaperones" to Stabilize and Correct Mutated Genes:
Two scientists in Florida-Chris Lee, Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville and Chad Dickey, Ph.D., of the University of South Florida-are testing whether certain chemical compounds or drug treatments could be developed to serve as "chaperones." These proteins would bind to and potentially correct the structure of mutated proteins that cause open angle glaucoma.
Macular Degeneration Research Grants
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) involves deterioration of the macula, the central area of the retina containing the light-sensitive cells that send visual signals to the brain. AMD impairs a person's ability to see straight ahead, read, or discern colors and is the leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 years of age or older. Currently, there are limited treatments for what is known as wet AMD and no treatment to prevent vision loss in the condition known as advanced dry AMD.
Highlights of the 10 AMD grants announced by AHAF include:
- Testing New Treatments for Dry AMD:
Kristen Farjo, Ph.D., of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, is working to develop a new treatment for dry AMD using techniques to reduce the formation of toxic vitamin A derivatives in the retina. She and her colleagues have already identified several non-chemical inhibitors of vitamin A that may have some therapeutic potential.
Haoyu Mao, Ph.D., of the University of Florida, Gainesville, who received AHAF's 2012 Elizabeth Anderson Award for AMD research, is studying the delivery of three different drugs for their potential in treating macular degeneration. Mao's use of therapeutic reagents is unique: one compound the team is testing has already been through Phase III clinical trials for another disease involving nerve cells-amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig Disease.
- Measuring Environmental Influences on One's Risk for AMD:
Milam Brantley, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., is studying the environmental risks for AMD. Brantley and colleagues have developed a comprehensive method for assessing risk using a cutting-edge technique called metabolomics. The team measures the levels of thousands of metabolic markers (metabolites) in the blood to identify environmental influences on AMD risk factors.