BrightFocus Foundation Announces 55 New Grant Recipients for Alzheimer’s and Vision Disease Research
Funding Critical on Diseases Now Affecting Baby Boomers
CLARKSBURG, MD—BrightFocus Foundation, a nonprofit organization funding cutting-edge, innovative research on Alzheimer’s disease and the vision diseases of glaucoma and macular degeneration, today announced the recipients of new research grant awards, offered to 55 scientists in 19 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and five foreign countries. With these latest grants, BrightFocus has now provided more than $8.7 million in research funding in 2014.
The research projects funded this year reflect a range of study interests and new technologies, with many scientists trying to unlock the clues to earlier detection and treatment of these diseases, before irreversible harm is done.
Demographic pressures bring a new urgency to the search for cures. Members of the large Baby Boom generation are now at the age where they are increasingly caring for elderly parents with these diseases, or facing an increased risk of acquiring one or more of these diseases themselves.
“The financial and emotional costs of these conditions to our country, and around the world, will be enormous,” said BrightFocus President and CEO Stacy Pagos Haller. “We believe that finding a way to slow, prevent, and treat brain and eye diseases must be a national priority.”
BrightFocus occupies a unique position in the world of research, identifying the most promising, early-stage research opportunities and offering “seed money” that helps new projects get off the ground. The Foundation has provided $140.3 million in research funding to date, awarding nearly $35 million for research on diseases of mind and sight in the last four years alone.
“With the continued strain and uncertainties facing federal funding for research, it is vital that nonprofits like BrightFocus help to keep the scientific pipeline funded,” said Haller.
Here are some of the trends in this year’s research topics:
Alzheimer’s Disease Research
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive and degenerative brain disorder that ultimately ends in death. A recent study by the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago suggests that Alzheimer’s may be a much more common cause of death than previously thought—perhaps the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
The main hope for preventing Alzheimer’s disease lies in intervening earlier than is now possible, since symptoms appear after irreversible brain damage has occurred. Scientists thus are exploring the possible pathways to earlier detection. A number of grantees are studying the early activity of the tau protein, associated with the accumulation of misshaped proteins that resemble “tangles” in the brain. Both tau “tangles” and beta amyloid “plaques” are sometimes, but not always, linked to the cognitive impairments found in Alzheimer’s disease.
Other scientists are looking at different genes involved in masterminding the interplay of proteins seen in Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers are trying to understand why cells in the healthy brain are able to expel excess tau and beta amyloid proteins before they become toxic, and what goes wrong with that cellular “housekeeping” in Alzheimer’s disease. Still others are studying similarities between Alzheimer’s disease and other diseases, and devising ways to test “repurposed drugs” that have already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for other diseases, but may hold promise with Alzheimer’s.
National Glaucoma Research
Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damage the eye’s optic nerve and can result in vision loss and blindness. With early detection, the disease can be managed to protect against vision loss—yet an estimated half of the three million people with glaucoma in the U.S. may not know they have the disease.
Researchers are trying to improve ways to study the changes in eye pressure that occur with this disease. Automated gene mapping techniques will search for genes involved in inherited forms of glaucoma. Scientists will target a new glaucoma gene controlling a protein linked to the death of retinal ganglion cells. High-resolution scans will help pinpoint genes associated with changes in optic nerves. Other scientists are studying the damaged eye drainage structures in glaucoma, or investigating whether other factors, including the immune system or changes in blood flow, hold the clue to defeating this disease.
Macular Degeneration Research
Macular degeneration is the leading cause of legal blindness in most developed countries and in the U.S. affects as many as 11 million people. The disease damages the macula, which is the part of the eye providing sharp, central vision needed for seeing objects clearly.
Six of the sixteen new grantees studying this disease are looking at how inflammation plays a role in early macular degeneration. The disease may develop after immune cells become activated when they should not be, causing damage. Still other researchers are examining early detection and diagnosis using advanced imaging techniques. Scientists are also experimenting with cell-based and gene-based therapies that might help reverse the changes leading to early disease, before retinal injury and vision loss occur.
For more information on the new grantees and their research projects, visit www.brightfocus.org/Grants2014
BrightFocus Foundation is a nonprofit organization supporting research and public education to help eradicate brain and eye diseases, including Alzheimer's disease, macular degeneration and glaucoma. For more information, call 1-800-437-2423.