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American Health Assistance Foundation announces latest grants for innovative vision research

Clarksburg, MDThe American Health Assistance Foundation (AHAF), a nonprofit organization with a history of funding cutting-edge research on age-related diseases, announced today that it has awarded 22 new grants totaling nearly $2.2 million to scientists worldwide who are studying glaucoma and macular degeneration. The two conditions are the leading causes of irreversible vision loss and blindness in the U.S.

"With these grants, we continue our annual track record of pinpointing some of the world's most promising research, and funding early-stage, innovative projects on these two devastating diseases," said Stacy Pagos Haller, AHAF's President and CEO. "Over the years, AHAF has awarded more than $115 million to advance research on age-related degenerative conditions, including $31.5 million in grants for glaucoma and macular degeneration research," she noted. Past AHAF grants supported the early work of two Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

"This year's vision researchers, like their predecessors, are using ground-breaking ideas to understand what causes these diseases and how to treat them," said Guy Eakin, Ph.D., AHAF's Vice President for Scientific Affairs.

"For glaucoma, a condition involving irreparable damage to the optic nerve, scientists are searching for clues to early detection," noted Eakin. Individuals are often unaware that they have glaucoma until it has caused permanent visual damage. "Right now, researchers in the U.S. and around the world are getting tantalizingly close to measuring changes in the brain and eye that were previously difficult to spot. Improved testing will lead to earlier and more effective treatments to prevent blindness," said Eakin.

Early detection is critical for all persons with glaucoma but particularly important in populations with a high incidence of the disease. African Americans, for example, are more likely than other populations to get glaucoma, develop it earlier in life, and experience blindness from the disease.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) involves deterioration of the macula, the central area of the retina containing the light-sensitive cells that send visual signals to the brain. AMD impairs a person's ability to see straight ahead, read, or discern colors. The cause of this disease in various populations remains poorly understood, underscoring the need for more research on genetic risk factors.

"AHAF is proud to announce new support for teams of researchers in the U.S. and Singapore who are using state-of-the-art techniques to study genes in different populations," said Haller. "Results could lead to the development of a broad spectrum of therapies to benefit all patients."

Subjects addressed in the 10 new glaucoma research grants include:

  • How the brain controls changes in eye and brain pressure:
Brian Christopher Samuels, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Indiana University, believes that changes to pressure in the brain may be just as important in causing glaucoma as changes in eye pressure. Samuels and his colleagues plan to locate and study the brain cells that control eye and brain pressure. Understanding how these cells work could lead to new glaucoma treatments.

  • The hunt for earlier detection methods:
Glaucoma, involving changes in both the front and back of the eye, is notoriously difficult to spot in its early phases. Researchers in the United Kingdom are investigating new ways to measure changes in different parts of the eye, to assess a person's risk and improve early detection.

Julie Albon, Ph.D., at Cardiff University in Wales, and her four co-investigators in Wales, London, and Vienna, will use a novel type of optical coherence tomography (OCT) machine to examine both the front surface and areas under the surface of the optic nerve head. Detecting changes in these areas could allow researchers and eye doctors to diagnose and treat glaucoma more rapidly.

Michael Julien Alexandre Girard, Ph.D., at Imperial College London, and co-investigator Nick Strouthidis, MBBS, M.D., MRCOphth, at London's Moorfields Eye Hospital, will also use an OCT scanner to explore whether the stiffness of the cornea at the front of the eye predicts mechanical damage at the back of the eye. Testing will allow them, for the first time ever, to establish a correlation between this stiffness and vision loss. Eventually, doctors may be able to assess a patient's risk of glaucoma by measuring the stiffness of the patient's eye during an office visit.

New research in the 12 age-related macular degeneration (AMD) grants includes:

  • Could adult stem cells lead to better, less invasive treatments?
One type of adult stem cell may hold promise in replacing damaged eye cells with healthy ones and offer better treatment options for AMD patients who currently face invasive eye surgery or frequent eye injections.

Retinal pigmented epithelial (RPE) cells, important for waste recycling and delivery of nutrients to light-detecting cells, are mysteriously killed off in dry age-related macular degeneration (dry AMD). In earlier studies, Michael E. Boulton, Ph.D., co-investigator Maria Grant, M.D., and others at the University of Florida at Gainesville, discovered that changing the expression of one gene in isolated bone marrow-derived plasma cells (BMPCs) -- a type of adult stem cell -- turns them into RPE-like cells. When injected into the blood of mice with impaired vision, BMPCs go to the retina, renew RPE cells, and re-establish normal vision.

Now, Boulton and Grant will test this RPE-replacement treatment in mice with AMD. Results could lead to human clinical trials and better treatment options for AMD patients.

  • Tracking Risk Genes for Macular Degeneration in Different Populations:
Researchers in Florida, Tennessee, and Singapore are studying the genetics of age-related macular degeneration in Caucasian, African American, and Asian populations, respectively. Discovering how genes affect a person's risk of AMD may lead to prevention and treatments.

Margaret A. Pericak-Vance, Ph.D., director of the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, is working to identify rare genetic variants leading to advanced AMD. Researchers will catalogue and compare gene changes in two groups of people: those with AMD despite no known risk factors, and those who have known risk factors but do not have AMD.

Jonathan L. Haines, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human Genetics Research at Vanderbilt University, will look for risk genes by comparing the DNA of African Americans with AMD to that of unrelated African Americans without AMD. Results could show whether AMD progresses differently in African Americans than in other populations.

In the first study of its kind, Tien Yin Wong, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Singapore Eye Research Institute, will examine the genetic causes of AMD in three Asian ethnic groups living in Singapore: Chinese, Malay, and Indian. Results may improve the understanding of how AMD starts and progresses.

AHAF also awarded grants for vision studies on regeneration of cells, neuroprotection, drug targets, new tools for investigators, and nutrition and lifestyle.


Contact: Alice L. Kirkman
AHAF-American Health Assistance Foundation

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