American Health Assistance Foundation Announces Latest Grants to Advance Promising Vision Research

  • Press Release
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Glaucoma Research Explores:

  • Connection to Alzheimer's Disease
  • How to Protect Eye Cells
  • Whether “Chaperone” Proteins Stop Vision Loss

Macular Degeneration Research Examines:

  • Potential New Treatments for Dry AMD
  • Environmental Factors Affecting Risk

CLARKSBURG, MD-The American Health Assistance Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a history of funding breakthrough research on age-related vision diseases, announced today that it has awarded 21 new grants totaling $2.1 million to scientists worldwide who are studying glaucoma and macular degeneration. The two conditions are the leading causes of irreversible blindness in the world.

“AHAF is known for pinpointing some of the world's most promising vision research and funding early-stage, innovative projects on these two devastating diseases,” said Stacy Pagos Haller, American Health Assistance Foundation's president and CEO. “Over the years, AHAF has awarded more than $120 million to advance research, including more than $33.6 million in grants addressing glaucoma and macular degeneration,” she noted.

Guy Eakin, Ph.D., AHAF's vice president for scientific affairs, added: “This year's vision research grant recipients are at the forefront of scientific knowledge about these two diseases. Many have developed unique tools and procedures to examine, cell by cell and gene by gene, the causes of and contributors to vision loss. Others are on the verge of developing new therapies to treat these diseases.”

National Glaucoma Research Grants

Glaucoma refers to a group of eye disorders often having few or no symptoms in the early stages but eventually causing harm to the optic nerve (the bundle of nerve fibers carrying information from the eye to the brain). Increasingly, researchers are examining this eye-brain connection. With early diagnosis and treatment, the condition can be controlled.

Tragically, people may not realize they have the disease until it has caused permanent visual damage. Of the 3 million Americans living with glaucoma, 2.7 million have its most common form, open angle glaucoma, and as many as half may not know they have it. Worldwide, glaucoma is a leading cause of irreversible blindness, affecting more than 60 million people.

Subjects addressed in the 11 new glaucoma research grants funded by the American Health Assistance Foundation include:

Studying the Increased Risk of Glaucoma with Alzheimer's Disease:


Peter P. De Deyn, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Antwerp, Belgium, is examining how Alzheimer's patients may be at increased risk of developing glaucoma. De Deyn's theory is that people with Alzheimer's disease may have reduced pressure in their cerebrospinal fluid (or CSF, which bathes the brain, eyes, and spinal cord), which may be caused by the brain shrinkage seen in Alzheimer's disease. The combination of reduced CSF pressure and a high eye pressure may play an important role in the development of glaucoma in Alzheimer's disease patients. De Deyn is conducting a human clinical trial to examine a link between the two diseases, as well as animal studies to understand disease mechanisms His work has implications for physicians, who may need to understand the potential for glaucoma in Alzheimer's patients and to monitor their CSF pressure.


Neuroprotection: How to Survive or Prevent the Death of Cells Affecting Vision:


Scientists at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and Duke University are investigating different ways to promote the survival of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), the optic nerve cells normally damaged in glaucoma.

JHU scientist Derek Welsbie, M.D., Ph.D., will work to understand which genes send signals that trigger the death of RGCs. Using automated microscopes and robots, he will turn off tens of thousands of genes, one by one, to see what makes the cells healthier. Zhiyong Yang, M.D., Ph.D., of JHU, along with co-principal investigator Donald J. Zack, M.D., Ph.D., will investigate whether a novel target protein can promote RGC survival, with implications for new drug treatments. Yang is the recipient of AHAF's 2012 Douglas H. Johnson award, given to the top-scoring grant applicant in glaucoma research. Shannath Merbs, M.D., Ph.D., of JHU, along with co-principal investigator Raymond A. Enke, Ph.D., will study DNA changes caused in part by environmental factors and whether manipulation of that process can improve RGC survival.

At Duke, Paloma B. Liton, Ph.D., and her co-principal investigator Molly Walsh, M.D, will examine why and how certain cells appear to effectively “eat themselves” under stress conditions and whether this self-eating process protects the optic nerve against chronic high eye pressure, or makes it more vulnerable to such pressure. Liton is also one of three recipients of American Health Assistance' 2012 Thomas R. Lee award, given for outstanding research in glaucoma. Other Lee awardees are John Kuchtey, Ph.D. of Vanderbilt University, conducting research on inherited forms of glaucoma, and Jason Meyer, Ph.D., of Indiana-Purdue University Indianapolis, examining potential cell replacement therapies.


Developing Drug “Chaperones” to Stabilize and Correct Mutated Genes: 


Two scientists in Florida-Wing (Chris) Lee, Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville and Chad Dickey, Ph.D., of the University of South Florida-are independently testing whether certain chemical compounds or drug treatments could be developed to serve as, or to target, "chaperones." These proteins would bind to and potentially correct the structure of mutated proteins that cause open angle glaucoma.


Macular Degeneration Research Grants

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 and is the leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 years of age or older. Currently, there are limited treatments for what is known as wet AMD and no treatment to prevent vision loss in the condition known as advanced dry AMD.

Highlights of the 10 AMD grants announced by the American Health Assistance Foundation include:

Testing New Treatments for Dry AMD:

Kristen Farjo, Ph.D., of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, is working to develop a new treatment for dry AMD using techniques to reduce the formation of toxic vitamin A derivatives in the retina. She and her colleagues have already identified several non-chemical inhibitors of vitamin A that may have some therapeutic potential. 

Haoyu Mao, Ph.D., of the University of Florida, Gainesville, who received AHAF's 2012 Elizabeth Anderson Award for the top-scoring proposal in AMD research, is studying the delivery of three different drugs for their potential in treating macular degeneration. Mao's use of therapeutic reagents is unique: one compound the team is testing has already been through Phase III clinical trials for another disease involving nerve cells-amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig Disease.


Measuring Environmental Influences on One's Risk for AMD:


Milam Brantley, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., is studying the environmental risks for AMD. Brantley and colleagues have developed a comprehensive and precise method for assessing risk using a cutting-edge technique called metabolomics. The team measures the levels of thousands of metabolic markers (metabolites) in the blood to identify environmental influences on AMD risk factors.

New AHAF grantees are also pursuing vision studies on early diagnosis, drug discovery, regeneration of cells, drug targets, and new tools for investigators, as well as studies on understanding how the diseases start and progress.

In addition to funding research on vision diseases, AHAF provides research grants through its Alzheimer's Disease Research (ADR) program. See the announcement of 22 new ADR grants at www.ahaf.org/2012AlzAwards.

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.

Stay connected to ground-breaking research news by signing up for AHAF eAlerts at www.ahaf.org/news.To follow American Health Assistance Foundation on Twitter and Facebook, visit www.ahaf.org/connect.



American Health Assistance Foundation's 2012 National Glaucoma Research and Macular Degeneration Research Award Recipients

AHAF awards grants for basic, translational, and clinically oriented research on the causes of, or treatments for, glaucoma and macular degeneration. Proposals are scored and grants are awarded on the basis of the scientific merit of the proposed research and the likelihood of the research leading to new understanding of aspects of the disease that could lead to improved treatments, prevention strategies, and diagnosis of glaucoma and macular degeneration.

National Glaucoma Research

  • Cerebrospinal Fluid Pressure at the Link Between Glaucoma and Alzheimer's Disease
    • Non-Technical Title: Searching the Link Between Alzheimer's Disease and Increased Risk of Glaucoma
    • Peter Paul De Deyn, M.D., Ph.D. Co-PI: Debby Van Dam, M.Sc., Ph.D.
    • Institute Born-Bunge, Belgium
  • Disrupting Chaperone/Myocilin Complexes for Glaucoma
    • Non-Technical Title: Targeting Chaperone Proteins to Improve Glaucoma
    • Chad Anthony Dickey, Ph.D.
    • University of South Florida
  • Identification of Glaucoma Genes by Exome Sequencing
    • Non-Technical Title: Finding Genes Causing Inherited Glaucoma in Newborns and Infants 
    • John Kuchtey, Ph.D., a 2012 Thomas R. Lee Award recipient. 
    • Co-PI: Rachel W. Kuchtey, M.D., Ph.D.
    • Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Vanderbilt Eye Institute
  • Development of a Novel Therapeutic for Inherited Glaucoma
    • Non-Technical Title: Development of a New Medicine for Inherited Glaucoma
    • Wing (Chris) Lee, Ph.D. 
    • Mayo Clinic Jacksonville
  • Redox Sulfhydryl Modifications as a Glaucoma Biomarker
    • Non-Technical Title: Identification of Pivotal Molecules That Regulate the Loss of Nerve Cells in Glaucoma
    • Leonard Levin, M.D., Ph.D. 
    • Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, School of Medicine and Public Health
  • Autophagy and Neurodegeneration in Glaucoma 
    • Non-Technical Title: Cell Self-Eating as a Protective Mechanism in Glaucoma
    • Paloma B. Liton, Ph.D., a 2012 Thomas R. Lee Award recipient. Co-PI: Dr. Molly Walsh, M.D.
    • Duke University Eye Center
  • The Role of DNA Methylation in Ganglion Cell Death
    • Non-Technical Title: Non-Genetic or "Epigenetic" Mechanisms and Cell Death in Glaucoma
    • Shannath L. Merbs, M.D., Ph.D. Co-PI: Raymond A. Enke, Ph.D.
    • Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, Wilmer Eye Institute
  • Patient-Specific Stem Cells for Studies of Glaucoma
    • Non-Technical Title: Studying Glaucoma with Stem Cells Derived from Patients
    • Jason S. Meyer, Ph.D., a 2012 Thomas R. Lee Award recipient.
    • Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
  • Cell Biology of NMB in Pigmentary Glaucoma
    • Non-Technical Title: Cellular Function of a Protein, NMB, Important in Eye Disease
    • Alexander C. Theos, Ph.D. 
    • Georgetown University, School of Nursing & Health Studies
  • Genome-wide RNAi Screening in Retinal Ganglion Cells
    • Non-Technical Title: Identifying New Drug Targets in Glaucoma
    • Derek S. Welsbie, M.D., Ph.D.
    • Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine
  • Role of a Protein Kinase in Retinal Ganglion Cell Degeneration in Glaucoma
    • Non-Technical Title: A Novel Target in Promoting Retinal Ganglion Cell Survival in Glaucoma 
    • Zhiyong Yang, M.D., Ph.D., recipient of the 2012 Douglas H. Johnson Award for Glaucoma Research. Co-PI: Donald J. Zack M.D., Ph.D. 
    • Johns Hopkins University

Macular Degeneration Research

  • Quantitative Evaluation of Environmental Risk for AMD
    • Non-Technical Title: Evaluation of Environmental Risk for AMD
    • Milam A. Brantley, M.D., Ph.D.
    • Vanderbilt University Medical Center
  • Exosomal microRNA from the RPE
    • Non-Technical Title: Small RNAs as Signaling Molecules Between the RPE and Choroid
    • Jiyang Cai, Ph.D.
    • University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston
  • Mouse Models for Studying The Role Of Inflammation in AMD
    • Non-Technical Title: Mouse Models for Studying Factors That Control Inflammation in AMD
    • Noriko Esumi, M.D., Ph.D. 
    • Johns Hopkins University
  • A Novel Visual Cycle Inhibitor to Treat Macular Degeneration
    • Non-Technical Title: Developing a New Therapeutic for Macular Degeneration 
    • Krysten M. Farjo, Ph.D. 
    • University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center
  • In Vivo Molecular Imaging of Neovascular AMD
    • Non-Technical Title: Molecular Imaging of Wet AMD
    • Ashwath Jayagopal, Ph.D.
    • Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Vanderbilt Eye Institute
  • Anti-Retinal Autoantibodies as AMD Biomarkers 
    • Non-Technical Title: Anti-Retinal Autoantibodies as AMD Biomarkers
    • Wei Li, Ph.D.
    • University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine
  • Efficient Differentiation of Retinal Pigment Epithelial Cells from hESC
    • Non-Technical Title:Efficient Generation of Retinal Pigment Epithelial Cells in the Cultures of hESC 
    • Wei Liu, Ph.D.
    • Albert Einstein College of Medicine
  • Treatment of Retinal Degeneration in a Mouse Model for Dry AMD 
    • Non-Technical Title: Treatment of Retinal Degeneration in a Mouse Model for the Dry Form of AMD
    • Haoyu Mao, Ph.D., recipient of the 2012 Elizabeth Anderson Award for Macular Degeneration Research.
    • University of Florida, Gainesville
  • VEGF-Extracellular Matrix Interactions in Choroidal Neovascularization
    • Non-Technical Title: Targeting Key Vascular Factors to Treat Macular Degeneration
    • Matthew A. Nugent, Ph.D. 
    • Boston University School of Medicine
  • Determine the Existence and Sequence of ARMS2 Protein
    • Non-Technical Title: To Prove the Existence or Non-Existence of ARMS2 Protein in Retinas
    • Gaofeng Wang, Ph.D. Co-PI: Sander Dubovy, M.D. at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute,
    • University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine