January 28, 2005

Award helps Penn carry on blindness research

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John Penn, Ph.D., was named to receive a Senior Scientific Investigator Award from Research to Prevent Blindness Inc.
photo by Anne Rayner

Award helps Penn carry on blindness research

John S. Penn, Ph.D., professor and vice chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, has received a Senior Scientific Investigator Award from the New York-based Research to Prevent Blindness Inc. (RPB). The award provides Penn a stipend to support his research efforts and is his third award from RPB.

“RPB funding has been instrumental in the success of my lab from the very beginning. The unrestricted nature of the funding has allowed me to take risks in my research that wouldn't have been possible otherwise, and some of those risks have paid off,” Penn said.

The Senior Scientific Investigator Award supports nationally recognized senior scientists conducting eye research at medical institutions. Penn also received the RPB Dolly Green Scholars Award recognizing young scientists of unusual promise in 1992, as well as their Lew R. Wasserman Merit Award aimed at mid-career investigators in 1997.

“I'm grateful to RPB for its support of my work, and for its contributions to eye research nationwide,” Penn said. “I can name several other vision scientists who, like me, received support from RPB at critical turning points in their careers. It's hard to imagine where our eye research community would be without their support.”

Penn's research focuses on angiogenesis in the eye, an important feature of diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, retinopathy of prematurity, sickle cell retinopathy and other conditions, and is the leading cause of blindness in developed countries. Penn considers his work an example of Vanderbilt's emphasis on translational research. Two of the angiostatic compounds Penn investigated under industry contract in 2004 recently received FDA approval for use in the treatment of eye disease.

Penn earned his B.A. in Biology from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and an M.S. in Marine Biology from the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Fla. He completed his Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics at the Institute of Molecular Biophysics of Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., and earned numerous awards and research fellowships during his graduate training.

In 1984 Penn served a National Institutes of Health (NIH) individual postdoctoral fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. His first teaching position was at the college as a research instructor in the Department of Ophthalmology in 1987, followed by promotion to tenure-track assistant professor a year later. In 1989, he joined the faculty of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock as assistant professor of Ophthalmology and Anatomy, as well as the founding director of the Arkansas Center for Eye Research.

Penn came to Vanderbilt in 1998 as professor and director of research for the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. He became vice chairman of the department in 2000, and served a year as interim chairman in 2001.

In addition to the individual honors it bestows, like the Senior Scientific Investigator Award earned by Penn, RPB provides general research support through grants to the nation's departments of ophthalmology.

“Vanderbilt Ophthalmology is fortunate to have RPB as a long-standing partner,” Penn said. ”The organization's general support of our research enterprise has provided improved research infrastructure, and it's facilitated a number of pilot projects by our junior faculty. This has helped several of them initiate independent research programs, just as it did for me nearly two decades ago. I've come to the end of the RPB funding repertoire, but Vanderbilt Ophthalmology will continue its partnership with RPB, and they will remain an integral part of our future development.”

RPB is the world's leading voluntary organization supporting eye research. Founded in 1960, the organization has channeled hundreds of millions of dollars to medical institutions for research into the causes, treatment and prevention of blinding eye diseases.