A New Approach to Modeling Subretinal Tissue to Understand and Treat Age-related Macular Degeneration

Elizabeth Vargis, PhD
Utah State University (Logan, UT)
Year Awarded:
Grant Duration:
July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2021
Macular Degeneration
Award Amount:
Grant Reference ID:
Award Type:
Award Region:
US Southwestern
Elizabeth Vargis, PhD

An Integrated Microfluidic Model of Subretinal Tissue to Study Age-related Macular Degeneration


The lining of the back of our eyes, including retinal pigment epithelial cells and blood vessels, supports our highly specialized photoreceptors. Blindness can occur if these cells and tissues do not work properly. By understanding how the layers work with one another, we can better understand how they behave normally and during disease. With our background as biological engineers, we will design a multi-layered model with human cells and blood vessels that realistically mimics the back of the eye under varying conditions to develop treatments that can effectively stop blindness.


My research team and I are building a better model of the back of the eye so we can work towards figuring out why new blood vessels invade the retina and cause blindness during age-related macular degeneration. We will replicate three layers of the outer retina: retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells, Bruch’s membrane, and the choroid. The RPEs support the photoreceptors and regulate many normal retinal functions, the choroid is the vascular layer of the eye, and Bruch’s membrane is the thin layer without cells between the RPE and choroid. As a bioengineering lab, our expertise lies in developing materials and methods to replicate these layers. We will investigate new materials to mimic the thinness and biocompatibility of Bruch’s membrane in vivo. We will also develop a microfluidic device that supports choroidal blood vessel growth. By putting these layers together, we expect to have a functioning model of the outer retina that can be manipulated to also mimic changes that contribute to age-related macular degeneration. We will use our results to better understand how choroidal blood vessels form during age-related macular degeneration. Eventually, this model will be a platform for studying others complications leading to age-related macular degeneration and discovering more effective therapies for combating new blood vessel invasion into the retina.

About the Researcher

 I am an Assistant Professor in Biological Engineering at Utah State University. I received a BS in Bioengineering from UC Berkeley, an MS and PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Vanderbilt University and then completed a postdoctoral appointment at the Oak Ridge National Lab. As an engineer, I am interested in studying mechanisms of disease by developing realistic, in vitro models of human tissue. The NIH, the Department of Energy, the Knights Templar Eye Foundation, the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, and the Utah NASA Space Grant Consortium have supported my research group. I am also the faculty advisor for the Biomedical Engineering Society and Society of Women Engineers. I have been recognized as the Outstanding Graduate Mentor in the College of Engineering and received the Early Career Award from the University’s Center for Women and Gender. I live in Logan, UT with my spouse, two young children, and two mischievous dogs. 

Personal Story

Only 5 out of 5,000 drugs that are in preclinical trials progress to human testing and only 1 of those 5 is approved. Why is it that so many promising new drugs end up failing in humans? I believe that we can increase the number of approved drugs by building better models to test them before preclinical trials. As a bioengineer, I want to contribute to developing these models that replicate human tissues and organs. I am particularly motivated to pursue models of the outer retina because of the difficultly in accessing the eye for treatment and the effect of vision loss on quality of life. As a junior faculty member, I truly appreciate support from BrightFocus to work on my potentially transformative ideas. I especially value the time the reviewers and BrightFocus staff spend on ensuring a wide range of research ideas are championed. I hope we are getting closer to better pharmaceutical options for preventing and treating age-related macular degeneration.

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