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Regenerative visual neuroscience effort launched

Oct. 2, 2014, 9:03 AM

Vanderbilt University has launched a regenerative visual neuroscience initiative to develop new ways of treating – and restoring sight to – people who have been blinded by glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and eye injuries.

“With world-class researchers and clinicians, state-of-the-art facilities and a strong institutional commitment to advancing the field, we have the potential to make significant discoveries,” said Paul Sternberg Jr., M.D., the G.W. Hale Professor and chair of Vanderbilt’s Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.

The initiative is being led by David Calkins, Ph.D., the Denis M. O’Day, M.B.B.S., Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and vice chair and director for Research of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute.

Irreversible vision loss is a problem that is huge — and growing.

Half a million people lose their sight in the United States every year due to ocular trauma. By 2020, an estimated 43 million Americans will have an age-related eye disease such as macular degeneration or glaucoma, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

David Calkins, Ph.D., is leading Vanderbilt’s newly launched visual neuroscience initiative. (photo by Joe Howell)

Calkins said the initiative is based on the “three R’s:” repair, rehabilitate and restore. One goal is to discover new drugs that induce “self-repair” and promote healing of the retina and optic nerve early in the disease process.

“We have an incredibly robust program in neuroprotection and neurorepair, where our faculty is using novel therapeutic interventions to prevent damage,” he said.

Rehabilitation can be achieved through the creation of electronic aids or prosthetic devices that enhance function and improve visual capability.

“It’s very, very difficult to treat an injury, but very often a portion of the visual field will be left intact after the injury,” Calkins said. “We work with patients to train them, or rehabilitate them to use intact portions of their visual fields.”

The ultimate goal is to “re-engineer” patients’ stem cells so that they can replace the diseased or damaged retina or optic nerve. To attain that goal, the initiative has been organized into three stepwise and steadily rising phases, each lasting about five years.

It also is multi-disciplinary, uniting the Schools of Medicine and Engineering and the College of Arts and Science. “We’re trying to develop strategic partnerships between bench scientists and clinicians to move the knowledge we gain into the clinic as rapidly as possible,” Calkins said.

If successful, “we can bring these emerging approaches into additional areas such as stroke, motor neuron disease, traumatic brain and spinal cord injury, dementia and cochlear and other sense organ damage,” he said.

These partnerships have already begun. This year a cross-departmental search committee chaired by Calkins interviewed several world-class scientists to fill the William A. Black Chair in Ophthalmology, funded by Suzanne Sousan in memory of her late father.

The committee, which represents the Departments of Cell and Developmental Biology, Molecular Physiology and Biophysics; and Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, seeks a cross-disciplinary scientist who can bridge basic and translational science while building new collaborations.

“This is an exciting opportunity to lay the foundations for a world-class initiative in regenerative visual sciences, and, ultimately, a cross-disciplinary Regenerative Medicine Institute at Vanderbilt,” said Ian Macara, Ph.D., Louise B. McGavock Professor and chair of Cell and Developmental Biology and a member of the search committee.

“The new technologies available to biomedical research today, in microscopy, gene editing and the various ‘omics’ make this a particularly exciting time to build such an endeavor,” Macara said.

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