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‘Audacious’ grant spurs research on retina regeneration

Sep. 1, 2016, 9:26 AM

Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Vanderbilt University have received a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support research to restore vision through regeneration of the retina.

The funding is part of the Audacious Goals Initiative, developed by the National Eye Institute (NEI), to push the boundaries of vision science through the facilitation of cross-disciplinary research to take on the most devastating and difficult-to-treat eye diseases by leveraging efforts in regenerative medicine. Vanderbilt is one of six teams sharing $12.4 million over three years.

Ed Levine, Ph.D.
Ed Levine, Ph.D.

Ed Levine, Ph.D., William A. Black Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and one of the lead investigators for the project, said the field of regeneration and stem cell biology has opened up vast opportunities for developing novel approaches to restoring eyesight.

“The ultimate goal is to identify new treatments to stimulate a patient’s own cells to undergo regeneration,” said Levine, who is also professor of Cell and Developmental Biology. “This is very early work, but we already have hints that it is possible because many fish species have the capacity to regenerate cells. We can look at the fish system to learn how to unlock the potential in a human.

“There are many situations where regeneration repair would be an incredible treatment for macular degeneration, glaucoma, and retinal degeneration. From a broader perspective, the idea that diseases where cells die once the tissue is damaged can benefit from this kind of work and discovery is exciting.”

James Patton, Ph.D.
James Patton, Ph.D.

Levine partnered with James Patton, Ph.D., Stevenson Professor of Biological Sciences, on the grant proposal. Patton studies retinal regeneration in zebrafish.

“We are working on understanding how the fish regenerates cells and apply those lessons to mouse models,” said Patton. “This grant will fund a set of experiments to identify novel factors and targets (genes and proteins) in the fish model that could then be translated into therapeutic possibilities for humans.

“We are lucky to be among the small subset of groups that were selected to receive these funds.”

The Vanderbilt cohort is among the first recipients of the NEI Audacious Goals Initiative funding.

David Calkins, Ph.D., vice chair and director of Research at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute (VEI), said that large-scale collaborations are essential to moving regenerative medicine forward.

“Vision loss is an engineering problem, one that is best approached by cross-fertilization between disciplines,” said Calkins.

In 2013 Vanderbilt‘s Tonia Rex, Ph.D., assistant professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, was one of 10 winners of the NIH’s Audacious Goals in Vision Research and Blindness Rehabilitation competition for ideas on the future of vision research.

Rex’s Audacious Goal targeted regenerative medicine and therapies and reflects a larger effort by VEI to develop programs in this arena.

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