March 9, 2007

Collaboration gives boost to glaucoma research

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The Vanderbilt Eye Institute’s David Calkins, Ph.D., is part of a multi-center research consortium investigating treatments for glaucoma. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Collaboration gives boost to glaucoma research

The Vanderbilt Eye Institute's David Calkins, Ph.D., is a member of a novel team of scientists hot on the trail of finding a cure for glaucoma, the world's leading cause of irreversible blindness.

Calkins and three other scientists recently received $7 million from the Glaucoma Research Foundation to be a part of Catalyst for a Cure, a collaborative research consortium created to accelerate the discovery of a glaucoma cure.

The initiative, which began in 2002, sought scientists in the fields of neuroscience and genetics who could draw from their diverse experiences in nerve regeneration development and physiology to target the mechanisms and eventually develop treatments or therapies for glaucoma. The grant ends in 2011.

“The Vanderbilt Eye Institute has a research group devoted to the studies of glaucoma as a neurobiological disease,” said Calkins, associate professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and leader of the Vanderbilt program.

“This is a neurological disease because it blinds through the death of the optic nerve. The consortium is a new model for doing biomedical research in this field. It's novel because we are approaching glaucoma using what we have learned from other neurological diseases.”

Calkins applauds Catalyst for a Cure for its innovation in pulling together scientists from diverse disciplines and backgrounds who were willing to become a part of a consortium interested in bringing neuroscience tools to bear.

The effort could be a major coup for the more than 66 million people affected by glaucoma worldwide. It is estimated that by 2010, 80 million people will be living with the disease, which typically affects those age 45 and older. Risk factors include age, family history, race (particularly blacks) and health history (hypertension).

“Right now about 2 million people have glaucoma and do not know it,” Calkins said. “Because the disease affects peripheral vision first, many do not notice any vision loss and do not see an ophthalmologist. Unfortunately, early glaucoma screenings are not a part of general health care practices.”

Calkins recommends routine eye exams with a specific emphasis on seeing an ophthalmologist after the age of 40.

“The Catalyst for a Cure has helped us move quicker in our work because we are a team committed to uncovering the roots of the disease without competition.”

Paul Sternberg, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, said the program is a palpable example of translational research at its best.

“David, a talented neuroscientist, is using his expertise in ganglion cell biology to address one of the leading causes of blindness in the world. We are thrilled that the Glaucoma Research Foundation has selected David and the Vanderbilt Eye Institute as part of this initiative and optimistic that dramatic breakthroughs will be achieved,” Sternberg said.

Other centers involved in the collaborative research include the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the University of Washington in Seattle and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Typically, scientists compete for research dollars and do not openly share their findings, nor do they spend time in each other's labs working as a team.

Because that research competition is absent within this consortium, this group of investigators is able to share state-of-the-art tools, research technology and novel findings.

The Catalyst for a Cure has been able to make strides toward understanding glaucoma's origin and pathways because of this model. To date, the group has found that changes to the nervous system in both the eye and the brain occur very early in the disease and has targeted a set of molecules that are thought to predispose the optic nerve to the damage caused by glaucoma. The group has also described processes in the disease similar to those in Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

“Right now, Vanderbilt has filed a patent on my behalf for a particular set of molecules we have discovered through Catalyst for a Cure,” said Calkins. “We are trying to develop interventions that will target these molecules with the idea of reducing the sensitivity of the optic nerve to the risk factors associated with glaucoma.”

Calkins' lab also demonstrated that reducing the amount of calcium in individual neural fibers within the optic nerve appears to effectively slow the progression of the disease. Although calcium is necessary for normal brain function, higher than normal levels within individual neurons can be detrimental to the optic nerve.

“Our clinical endpoint is the degree of optic nerve survival. If we are right, the implications for treatment of glaucoma and perhaps other degenerative diseases could be vast.”