AHAF awards 21 grants for promising vision research

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 11:48 AM

The American Health Assistance Foundation (AHAF), a nonprofit organization that funds breakthrough research on age-related vision diseases, has awarded 21 new grants totaling $2.1 million to scientists worldwide who are studying glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

"This year's grant recipients are at the forefront of scientific knowledge about these two diseases,” said Guy Eakin, Ph.D., vice president for scientific affairs, AHAF's. “Many have developed unique tools and procedures to examine, cell by cell and gene by gene, the causes of and contributors to vision loss."

Eleven grants were awarded for glaucoma research. One of the studies, lead by Peter P. De Deyn, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Antwerp, Belgium, examines how Alzheimer's patients may be at increased risk of developing glaucoma. De Deyn says people with Alzheimer's disease may have reduced pressure in their cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which bathes the brain, eyes, and spinal cord. De Deyn is conducting a human clinical trial, as well as animal studies.

Three grant recipients are researching neuroprotection — preventing the death of cells — by promoting the survival of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), the optic nerve cells normally damaged in glaucoma. Derek Welsbie, M.D., Ph.D, of Johns Hopkins University 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 Johns Hopkins, will investigate whether a novel target protein can promote RGC survival, while Shannath Merbs, M.D., Ph.D., also of Johns Hopkins, will study DNA changes caused in part by environmental factors and whether manipulation of that process can improve RGC survival.

Another glaucoma study will attempt to develop drug “chaperones” to stabilize mutated genes. Chris Lee, Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonvill, Fla., and Chad Dickey, Ph.D., of the University of South Florida are testing whether certain chemical compounds could be developed to bind to and potentially correct the structure of mutated proteins that cause open angle glaucoma.

AHAF awarded the other 10 grants for age-related macular degeneration research. One such study, lead by Kristen Farjo, Ph.D., of the University of Oklahoma, is developing a new treatment for dry AMD using techniques to reduce the formation of toxic vitamin A derivatives in the retina. Farjo and colleagues have identified several non-chemical inhibitors of vitamin A.

Another noteworthy study, lead by Haoyu Mao, Ph.D., of the University of Florida, Gainesville, is examining the delivery of three different drugs for their potential in treating AMD. One compound has already been through phase III clinical trials for another disease involving nerve cells, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Milam Brantley, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University, is studying the environmental risks for AMD. Using a technique called metabolomics, Brantley's team measures the levels of thousands of metabolic markers in the blood to identify environmental influences on AMD risk factors.

"AHAF is known for pinpointing some of the world's most promising vision research and funding early-stage, innovative projects," said Stacy Pagos Haller, AHAF's president and CEO. "To date, AHAF has awarded more than $120 million to advance research, including more than $33.6 million in grants addressing glaucoma and macular degeneration.”

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