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Grants help propel glaucoma, macular degeneration research

Sep. 27, 2012, 10:28 AM

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Three Vanderbilt University Medical Center faculty members have been awarded grants from the American Health Assistance Foundation to support their research on glaucoma and macular degeneration — the two leading causes of irreversible blindness in the world.

Vanderbilt Eye Institute researchers received three of the 21 grants given by the organization tasked with funding breakthrough research on age-related vision diseases.

The awards are $100,000 each.

John Kuchtey, Ph.D., research assistant professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at VEI, and colleagues are studying ways to detect the genes causing inherited glaucoma in newborns and infants.

Families previously screened and found negative for mutations in known primary congenital glaucoma (PCG) genes will be studied to identify the disease-causing mutations in hopes of discovering new glaucoma genes.

“The hallmark symptom of PCG is severely elevated eye pressure,” said Kuchtey. “Identification of a new glaucoma gene involved in increased eye pressure due to insufficient drainage of aqueous humor will improve the basic understanding of glaucoma, which may lead to more effective diagnosis and treatment of glaucoma for patients of all ages.”

Kuchtey was also named the AHAF 2012 Thomas R. Lee Award recipient, given for outstanding research in glaucoma.

“I hope I can live up to the honor and produce some interesting and useful science,” Kuchtey said.

Milam Brantley Jr., M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and director of the Initiative for Ocular Pharmacogenomics at VEI, is studying the environmental risks for age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Brantley and his colleagues have developed a comprehensive method for assessing risk using a cutting-edge technique called metabolomics. The team is able to measure the levels of thousands of metabolic markers in the blood to identify environmental influences on AMD risk factors.

“Determining the combination of metabolic and genetic factors associated with AMD will lead to a better understanding of the disease, and ultimately may lead to personalized clinical care,” said Brantley. “Further, a blood test combining genetics and metabolism could be developed to predict an individual’s risk for developing AMD and allow more timely treatment to prevent AMD-related vision loss.”

Ashwath Jayagopal, Ph.D., assistant professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at VEI, and colleagues are working on developing nanotechnology-based approaches for imaging critical biomarkers of early wet AMD.

“This technique could introduce a new clinical approach for enhancing diagnostic capabilities in the management of AMD,” said Jayagopal. “Clinicians may be able to detect wet AMD at a point that enables therapies to be administered to the patient in a more timely fashion, better preserving vision.

“Furthermore, the approach could be used to monitor disease progression and determine whether a course of therapy is effective in treating the patient.”

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