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American Health Assistance Foundation Announces Latest Grants for Innovative Vision Research

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Glaucoma: 

  • For Early Detection, Scientists Measuring Key Changes in the Eye and Brain 

Macular Degeneration: 

  • Adult Stem Cells May Lead to New Treatments; International Teams Tracking Genetic Risks


CLARKSBURG, MD-The American Health Assistance Foundation, 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, the American Health Assistance Foundation 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 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. For information on all American Health Assistance grants, visit www.ahaf.org/research/grants. New grants include 19 research projects on Alzheimer's disease, announced by American Health Assistance today at www.ahaf.org/2011AlzAwards.

About the American Health Assistance Foundation

The American Health Assistance Foundation (www.ahaf.org) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding cures for age-related degenerative diseases by funding research worldwide under its three program areas: Alzheimer's Disease Research, Macular Degeneration Research, and National Glaucoma Research. AHAF also provides public information about these diseases, including risk factors, preventative lifestyles, current treatments, and coping strategies.

To learn more about age-related disease research, visit www.ahaf.org/research or call 800-437-2423. Stay connected to ground-breaking research news by signing up for AHAF eAlerts at www.ahaf.org/news. To follow the American Health Assistance Foundation on Twitter and Facebook visit www.ahaf.org/connect.


American Health Assistance Foundation's 2011 National Glaucoma Research and Macular Degeneration Research Award Recipients

The American Health Assistance Foundation awards grants for basic, translational, and clinically oriented research on the causes of, or treatments for, glaucoma and macular degeneration. Grants are awarded on the basis of scientific merit of the proposed research and the relevance of the research to understanding aspects of the disease that lead to improved treatments, prevention strategies, and diagnosis of glaucoma and macular degeneration.

Glaucoma Awards

  • Discs at Risk: Novel Optic Nerve Head Phenotyping in Glaucoma 
    • Non-Technical Title: A Quantitative Index that Characterizes Optic Nerves at Risk of Glaucoma 
    • Julie Albon, Ph.D.
    • Cardiff University
  • In Vivo Corneal Biomechanics: A Biomarker for Glaucoma? 
    • Non-Technical Title: Can Corneal Stiffness Predict Vision Loss from Glaucoma? 
    • Michael Julien Alexandre Girard, Ph.D.
    • Imperial College London 
  • Mapping the Protein and Lipid Signature of Glaucoma 
    • Non-Technical Title: Molecular Changes Underlying Vision Loss in Glaucoma 
    • David J. Calkins, Ph.D.
    • Vanderbilt University Medical Center
  • Activation of Innate Immune Toll-4 Receptor in POAG 
    • Non-Technical Title: Activation of Innate Immunity System and Gluacoma 
    • Paul A. Knepper, M.D., Ph.D.
    • University of Illinois at Chicago 
  • Role of CX3CR1 in Microglia Activation and Retinal Ganglion Cell Degeneration in Glaucoma - An in Vivo Imaging Study 
    • Non-Technical Title: The Role of Microglia Activation in Retinal Ganglion Cell Degeneration 
    • Chirstopher Kai-shun Leung, M.D.
    • The Chinese University of Hong Kong 
  • Neurotrophic Mechanisms in Ocular Hypertension Mice 
    • Non-Technical Title: Neurotrophins in High-tension Glaucoma 
    • Xiaorong Liu, Ph.D.
    • Northwerstern University 
  • Crosstalk of TGF-Beta and Wnt Pathways in the Trabecular Meshwork 
    • Non-Technical Title: Crosstalk of Two Glaucoma-Associated Pathways in the Trabecular Meshwork 
    • Weiming Mao, Ph.D.
    • University of North Texas Health Science Center 
  • Are Mice Good Models of IOP Regulation in Human Eyes? 
    • Non-Technical Title: Are Mice Good Animal Models to Study How Pressure is Regulated in Human Eyes? 
    • Darryl R. Overby, Ph.D.
    • Imperial College London 
  • Hypothalamic Control of Translaminar Pressure Gradients
    • Non-Technical Title: How the Brain Controls Changes in Eye Pressure and Brain Pressure 
    • Brian C. Samuels, M.D., Ph.D.
    • Indiana University
  • MicroRNAs in Glaucomatous Neurodegeneration
    • Non-Technical Title: microRNAs in Glaucoma 
    • Shunbin Xu, M.D., Ph.D.
    • Rush University Medical Center 

Macular Degeneration Awards

  • Preprogrammed Bone Marrow Cells as a Systemic Therapy for Dry AMD 
    • Non-Technical Title: Programming Circulating Cells as a Therapy for Age-related Macular Degeneration 
    • Michael E. Boulton, Ph.D.
    • University of Florida 
  • The Role of Autophagy in Age-related Eye Disease 
    • Non-Technical Title: The Role of the Cell's Recycling System in the Development 
    • Thomas A. Ferguson, Ph.D.
    • Washington University
  • The Genetics of AMD in African-Americans 
    • Non-Technical Title: The Genetics of Age-Related Macular Degeneration in African-Americans 
    • Jonathan L. Haines, Ph.D.
    • Vanderbilt University Medical Center 
  • The Inflammasome and Novel Therapeutic Targets in AMD 
    • Non-Technical Title: Inflammation and AMD 
    • Peter Humphries, Ph.D. 
    • Trinity College Dublin
  • Generating a Zebrafish Model to Study AMD 
    • Non-Technical Title: New Model of Macular Degeneration 
    • David R. Hyde, Ph.D.
    • University of Notre Dame 
  • NALP3 Activation Triggers Development of AMD 
    • Non-Technical Title: Inflammation as a Trigger of Age Related Macular Degeneration 
    • Bruce Ksander, Ph.D.
    • The Schepens Eye Research Institute
  • Cytokine Signaling in the Foveal Choroid in AMD 
    • Non-Technical Title: Cytokine Expression in Age-related Macular Degeneration 
    • Vinit B. Mahajan, M.D., Ph.D.
    • University of Iowa 
  • Whole Exome Sequencing in Age-Related Macular Degeneration 
    • Non-Technical Title: Identifying Rare Genetic Variants Leading to Advanced AMD 
    • Margaret A. Pericak-Vance, Ph.D.
    • University of Miami 
  • The Epigenetics of RPE Aging 
    • Non-Technical Title: Age-dependent Modifications of Retinal Pigmented Epithelium Genomic DNA 
    • Monte J. Radeke, Ph.D.
    • University of California, Santa Barbara 
  • Complement Activation in RPE Function and AMD Pathogenesis 
    • Non-Technical Title: Establishment of a Mouse Model for Understanding How Plasma Proteins Called Complement May Cause the Dry Form of Age-related Macular Degeneration
    • Wenchao Song, Ph.D.
    • University of Pennsylvania 
  • Genetic Markers of Asian Age-related Macular Degeneration 
    • Non-Technical Title: Finding the Genetic Causes of Age-Related Macular Degeneration in Asians 
    • Tien Yin Wong, M.D., Ph.D.
    • Singapore Eye Research Institute 
  • High Content Screen for RPE Cell Protective Compounds 
    • Non-Technical Title: Identifying Cell-protective Compounds for the Treatment of AMD 
    • Donald J. Zack, M.D., Ph.D.
    • Johns Hopkins University