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BrightFocus Honors Five Vision Researchers

  • Press Release
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Foundation Awards Research Grants to Innovative Scientists

ORLANDO, FL—The BrightFocus Foundation today honored five outstanding scientists in the fields of macular degeneration and glaucoma, presenting them with named research awards at an event during the annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology.

“Each year we give these awards in recognition of the most promising and forward-thinking ideas in the fields of glaucoma and macular degeneration research,” said Stacy Pagos Haller, BrightFocus President and CEO. “These special grant awards are funded in honor of exceptional people who fought these diseases and wanted to support outstanding researchers.

Today’s honorees come from five states - California, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, and Texas - and are among 30 scientists offered a total of $3.5 million in BrightFocus grant awards this year to fight vision diseases.

Macular Degeneration Awards

Three of the awardees are studying macular degeneration, a disease that causes deterioration of the retina and can interfere with clear central vision. They are:

  • Debra Thompson, PhD, University of Michigan. Thompson is looking at special proteins that may help control inflammatory responses in the retina. This could help prevent the presence of low grade inflammation that can cause retinal damage over long periods of time. She receives $120,000 with the Elizabeth Anderson Award for Macular Degeneration Research, honoring the memory of the beloved late wife of a BrightFocus Scientific Review Committee member, Dr. Robert Anderson. Elizabeth was dedicated to helping young scientists in vision research.
  • Debasish Sinha, PhD, Johns Hopkins University. Sinha is working to understand how the disruption of certain processes—known as autophagy and phagocytosis—activates the immune system in retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) cells, which can lead to some manifestations of macular degeneration. Sinha’s team has developed genetic tools to help understand how the RPE cells are modified through these cellular processes. This research receives $120,000 and The Carolyn K. McGillvray Award for Macular Degeneration Research, provided in memory of McGillvray’s fighting spirit as she battled macular degeneration.
  • Douglas Vollrath, MD, Stanford University. Vollrath also is studying the genetics of RPE cells, examining how the function of these cells varies among individuals due to differences in their genes. His project may help scientists better understand why macular degeneration affects some people more than others. He receives $120,000 with the Helen Juanita Reed Award for Macular Degeneration Research, named after a beloved BrightFocus supporter and philanthropist who lived with, and supported research on, macular degeneration.

Glaucoma Awards

Two researchers received special grant awards for research on glaucoma, a group of eye diseases involving damage to the optic nerve, which limits peripheral vision and can lead to blindness if left untreated. The grant recipients are:

  • Colleen McDowell, PhD, University of North Texas Health Science Center. Glaucoma can involve increased pressure inside the eye, when eye fluid is not drained properly through the drainage structures in the front of the eye. McDowell’s team is studying a novel pathway and working to understand how these drainage structures work. She receives $100,000 in grant funds with the Dr. Douglas H. Johnson Award for Glaucoma Research. This is presented annually to the top-rated research proposal in glaucoma, in honor of Dr. Johnson’s years of service as chairman of the Scientific Review Committee for Glaucoma.
  • Christopher Passaglia, PhD, University of South Florida. Passaglia is working on a smart pump that would give glaucoma researchers and clinicians an innovative system for measuring and controlling eye pressure. He receives $100,000 with the Thomas R. Lee Award for Glaucoma Research. Lee, who bequethed  the annual award, was a philanthropist, farmer, and businessman who battled glaucoma.

In 2014, BrightFocus Foundation is awarding $8.7 million in scientific support for vision and brain research. In early July, visit www.brightfocus.org, when BrightFocus will announce and provide details on the 55 projects receiving traditional research grants.

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.