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Mass. Eye and Ear researcher among winners of competition for Audacious ideas in research

Boston (Feb. 11, 2013) -- Massachusetts Eye and Ear ophthalmologist and eye researcher Janey L. Wiggs, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Chief of Ophthalmology Clinical Research and Associate Director of the Ocular Genomics Institute at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary/Harvard Medical School, is one of 10 winners of the National Eye Institute's Audacious Goals challenge. The challenge was a nationwide competition that invited compelling ideas to advance vision science, and garnered a pool of nearly 500 entries. Each winner receives a $3,000 prize plus travel expenses to attend the NEI Audacious Goals Development Meeting, Feb. 24-26, 2013, at the Bolger Conference Center in Potomac, Md. The National Eye Institute (NEI) is a branch of the federal National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Wiggs is the Harvard Medical School (HMS) Paul A. Chandler Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and a resident of Lexington, Mass.

Dr. Wiggs' winning submission, entitled "Vision BioBank A Network of Ocular Phenotyping Centers Using Genomic and Epidemiologic Data to Promote Personalized Ophthalmology," proposes to create a network of biobanks that collect corresponding phenotype (physical characteristics) and genotype (genetic) data on people with certain eye diseases. These biobanks could be used for a wide range of studies, including the development of sensitive and specific gene tests that could accurately determine a person's risk for such diseases, as well as their likely response to certain therapies.

"It would be fantastic if sensitive and specific gene tests could be used to accurately determine disease risk and therapeutic response for common, complex, blinding diseases such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and uveitis. Imagine that an eye exam begins with a report listing disease risks and effective therapies for each patient," said Dr. Wiggs. "Ultimately, it will be possible to identify patients at risk for blinding disease and employ effective therapeutic strategies before irreversible vision loss occurs, making it possible to maintain lifelong useful sight."

Joan W. Miller, MD, FARVO, Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Chief of Ophthalmology at Mass. Eye and Ear and Mass General Hospital, agreed. "Dr. Wiggs' multi-institutional 'Vision BioBank' directly addresses the next critical phase in the patient care revolution that is, to develop a broad, deep and robust repository of patient population data so researchers around the globe can more effectively unravel genotype-phenotype connections. With this data in hand, we can more rapidly identify target pathways and develop pharmacologic therapies that mitigate or reverse the progression of disease."

John Fernandez, Mass. Eye and Ear President and CEO offered, "It's gratifying to see Dr. Wiggs among the NEI's Audacious Goals winners. The honor speaks to her vision as a researcher and dedication to improving treatment and care for patients with eye diseases, not only at Mass. Eye and Ear, but also around the world. Dr. Wiggs is one of many visionary researchers at Mass. Eye and Ear working to harness the power of genetic research to move us closer to our goal of curing blinding diseases."

A graduate of the Mass. Eye and Ear/Harvard Medical School 2011 ophthalmology residency program, Rajesh Rao, M.D., Ph.D., was also among the 10 selected, for his proposal "An Audacious Goal: Reprogramming the Retina." The objective of his project would be to directly reprogram easy-to-isolate skin or blood cells to retinal cells using gene therapy and other techniques to enable repair strategies for degenerative retinal diseases. Dr. Rao is the youngest recipient and only trainee to be selected an Audacious Goals winner. He is currently a vitreoretinal fellow at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and The Retina Institute, St. Louis, Mo.

"The Audacious Goals initiative was born out of the NEI strategic planning process, however it is much more than a standard strategic planning exercise," said Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D., NEI director. "We are envisioning the future. When we look back 10 to 12 years from now, what do we want to have accomplished? The Audacious Goals initiative will help propel us into that future."

The NEI Challenge to Identify Audacious Goals in Vision Research and Blindness Rehabilitation is part of a government-wide effort to bring the best ideas and top talent to bear on our nation's most pressing challenges. The challenge sought ideas that support the NEI mission to conduct and support research and other programs aimed at reducing the burden of vision disorders and disease worldwide. Prize competition entries were solicited not only from experts in vision research but from anyone in the private, government, and nonprofit sectors, including scientists, engineers, health care providers, inventors, and entrepreneurs, as well as the general public. Entries were de-identified and reviewed by experts on the basis of relevance to the NEI mission and whether the ideas are bold, daring, unconventional, or exceptionally innovative; they also were required to be broad in scope and potentially attainable within about 10 years.

Within a three-month period, 476 entries were submitted from people across the United States, including Puerto Rico. Topics ranged from regenerative medicine and stem cells to neuroscience, genetics, drug development, and artificial vision and prosthetics.

"We didn't know what to expect when we issued this challenge," said Richard S. Fisher, Ph.D., director of NEI's Office of Program Planning and Analysis, which is spearheading the initiative. "Surprisingly, nearly half of the submissions we received came from people who had never been funded by NIH, which demonstrated that we captured the attention of a wide audience throughout the U.S. We invited anyone with an interest in vision research to submit an idea that began with the phrase, 'It would be fantastic if' and in fact, we received many truly audacious ideas."

During the judging process, more than 80 experts in the vision community helped narrow the field to 81 final candidates. A federal panel consisting of 13 clinicians and scientists then selected the winning ideas.

The winners have been invited to present their ideas later this month at the NEI Audacious Goals Development Meeting, which will include about 200 vision researchers, patient advocates, ophthalmologists, and optometrists from the U.S. and abroad. The selected ideas will be discussed intensively for further expansion, development, and refinement. Following the meeting, NEI staff and members of the National Advisory Eye Council will finalize and publish a set of the most compelling audacious goals for the institute and the broader vision research community to pursue over the next decade.

"The selection of the winning entries marks the true starting point for NEI's Audacious Goals initiative," said Dr. Fisher. "We are now at the point where some of the world's most prominent vision experts can discuss these ideas in-depth, establish a set of audacious goals, and weigh in on how we can realize those goals."


Contact: Mary Leach
Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary

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