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Macular Degeneration Research News: Fall 2019

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Macular Degeneration Research News: Fall 2019
Macular Degeneration Research News: Fall 2019

In This Issue...

Macular Degeneration: Looking Beyond The Retina


Each spring, the world’s top vision scientists gather at ARVO, the annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, to share knowledge about cutting-edge
research discoveries.

This year, scientists funded by Macular Degeneration Research presented groundbreaking discoveries about key players involved in macular degeneration—looking at the cellular level both in and near the retina. They described the retina as a dynamic and changing environment where “crosstalk” among cells and crosscurrents of immune activity can either positively or negatively impact the development of this disease.

For instance, Daniel Saban, PhD, of Duke University, described how immune cells called microglia reside in microenvironments, or “niches,” in subretinal spaces. He and his colleagues found that when the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) that nourishes the retina is damaged, microglia migrate there to protect it. They turn on genes involved in protective pathways and turn off those involved in negative immune response pathways.

Dr. Saban’s team also found that the microglial response varied depending on which part of the retina they were recruited from, opening up possibilities for targeted
new therapies.


Cristhian Ildefonso, PhD
Macular Degeneration Research funded scientists like Cristhian Ildefonso, PhD, are spearheading today’s most promising vision studies.

Another grant recipient, Cristhian Ildefonso, PhD, of the University of Florida, gave a “Hot Topic” talk about how chronic inflammation creates conditions for geographic atrophy, the most advanced form of dry macular degeneration. To have one’s presentation labeled a “Hot Topic” is a special honor, indicating it represents some of the most innovative thinking in the field.

Dr. Ildefonso and his team were able to “kick-start” the immune response by injecting a molecule to simulate low-level inflammation. This yielded short-term protection to the retina.

“Understanding how this activation of the systemic immune response protects the retina could lead to the identification of therapies that may help slow macular degeneration,” concluded Dr. Ildefonso and his colleagues.

These are just two of the advances that researchers we fund have made, thanks to help from supporters like you. Their insights help advance the scientific understanding of macular degeneration and spur further efforts to stop this terrible disease.

President's Corner

Like you, I’m eager to hasten the day when we defeat macular degeneration—when this disease can no longer lead to irreversible blindness for our friends and loved ones.

Scientists we fund are working tirelessly to make this happen, as you’ll read about in this issue of Macular Degeneration Research News. Our cover story highlights pioneering advances they presented at the ARVO conference, which could help transform how this disease is treated.

You’ll also learn about a researcher who is working on a tool to predict the risk of macular degeneration progressing to the advanced stages, which could allow for earlier intervention and treatment to prevent vision loss. And you’ll get tips from a patient advocate about helping yourself and others adapt to low vision.

Your support enables us to fund the most promising research and provide sight-saving information to the public. Thank you for your generosity!

Stacy Pagos Haller

Research Briefs

A Cellular Nutrient Could Help Delay Macular Degeneration

Many retinal diseases, including macular degeneration, begin with dysfunction in the RPE, which feeds and maintains the retina.

Scientists funded by Macular Degeneration Research have now shown that boosting dietary levels of a nutrient called proline can improve visual function in a model of retinal degeneration.

Jianhai Du, PhD, of West Virginia University, and Jennifer Chao, MD, PhD, of the University of Washington, found that proline plays an important role in supporting the RPE’s health and metabolism, as well as in meeting the eye’s huge energy needs. Their study was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Although further research is needed, this study suggests that proline supplementation might help delay or prevent retinal degeneration.

How Do Environmental Stressors Damage the Retina?


Can specific environmental stressors contribute to the development of macular degeneration? Based on a Macular Degeneration Research-funded study, the answer appears to be yes.

Ruchira Singh, PhD, at the University of Rochester, investigated two potential stressors: cigarette smoke and iron overload. Her research showed that these can impair the retina’s ability to dispose of photoreceptor outer segments (POS).

Normally, these light-sensing cells are shed daily and removed as part of the RPE’s “housekeeping” functions. However, Dr. Singh’s research, published in Cell Death Discovery, showed that cigarette smoke and iron overload can impact the ability to dispose of POS. The partially digested waste builds up and creates a toxic debris that can contribute to macular degeneration.

This study provides evidence of the direct role these two stressors have on cell dysfunction in this disease, and possibly other retinal degenerative diseases as well.

Spotlight: New Grants Awarded To Help Fight Macular Degeneration

Predicting the Progression of Macular Degeneration

Most patients with advanced macular degeneration experience severe vision loss. Although artificial intelligence algorithms have been developed to help predict how an individual’s disease will progress, we’re still far from implementing tailored treatments and follow-up care.

Now, Joelle Hallak, PhD, of the University of Illinois, is trying to change that, with the help of her recent Macular Degeneration Research grant. She is developing a way to better predict the progression of macular degeneration by integrating imaging, genetic, demographic, and clinical data in statistical predictive models.

This could result in a tool that predicts the chances of macular degeneration’s progression on a patient-by-patient basis. This, in turn, would help identify high-risk individuals sooner so they could benefit from earlier treatment.

This is just 1 of the 20 new grants Macular Degeneration Research recently awarded to help fight this disease. You can read about all the studies we funded in 2019 at


Joelle Hallak, PhD
Joelle Hallak, PhD

“My interest in blinding eye diseases arose after observing the debilitation on affected patients,” noted Dr. Hallak, who is deeply grateful to our supporters who made her grant possible.

“With the proper tools, we will be able to improve the diagnosis of macular degeneration, as well as the early identification of patients who are likely to progress to a blinding stage. Our methods may lead to a tool that provides better identification of high-risk patients… who should have more intensive screening, detecting progression and enabling treatment at an earlier stage, and ultimately resulting in better clinical outcomes.”

Register for BrightFocus Chats

Recently diagnosed with macular degeneration? Know someone who has it? Receive helpful information from our FREE monthly phone call with doctors, researchers, or experts in the field on timely topics. You can submit questions before or during the event. Transcripts and audio recordings are available afterward on our website.

To register, call 800-437-2423 or go to

Helping Yourself And Others Adapt To Low Vision


Dan and Chris Roberts
Dan and Chris Roberts share helpful tips on living with macular degeneration.

Dan Roberts lives with low vision and is a co-founder of the organization MD Support, which provides information on macular degeneration. His wife, Chris, has many years of experience helping him deal with vision loss. Together they have faced adversity with courage, honesty, and humor. They shared their experiences in a recent
BrightFocus Chat.

Dan and Chris say they are lucky in how they can cope with low vision.

“I was born to be a teacher,” says Dan. He loves to teach others what he has learned. He provides information about macular degeneration to hundreds of low-vision support groups nationwide.

Chris has been there for Dan since he was diagnosed first with retinopathy at age 50, and then later with macular degeneration.

As a full-time homemaker with experience caring for extended family members, she’s provided him with invaluable support.

Learning, Then Sharing, Is Key

“She and I both sat in on doctors’ meetings and conventions, to learn what the research was doing and where we could find resources,” says Dan.

“We talked about it all the time,” says Chris. “We knew each other’s feelings and moods, and if there was something wrong going on, we could sense it. We did the whole thing together.”

The Challenge of Adapting

The hardest part for Dan was his fear of the unknown. Would his condition lead to complete blindness? (It did not.)

Also, his inability to perform once-easy tasks made him lose confidence.

Once, he became frustrated when he couldn’t fix a light switch. Then Chris held the flashlight for him. Suddenly, the task wasn’t so overwhelming. “I can take my time,” Dan realized. “She held the light, she held the tools, and we got the darn light
switch fixed.”

He adds, “My grandmother used to say that for every mountain, there’s a valley.” Sometimes it’s hard to get to that mountain when you’re depressed, so “those were the times Chris and I had to work together.”

If you don’t have a spouse or caregiver, find a support group to help you.

Be Proactive

It’s important to realize you CAN eventually reach the mountain top, with some adjustments. Be proactive about handling depression. “Take care of it before it becomes a problem,” says Dan. “Get annual eye exams, improve your diet, keep moving, and help other people.”

Helpful Resources

A diagnosis of macular degeneration can be very worrisome. You might have questions about how it will impact your family, employment, independence, and quality of life.

For helpful information about these and other issues, visit

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