Supporting Vision Researchers of Tomorrow
On November 18 2022, three teams of vision researchers battled it out for $100,000 in awards to support their research and advance their innovations. They pitched their projects to three esteemed judges and a panel of academy members.
Meet the Researchers
Dr. Bob Chow & Dr. Bridget Ryan
Dr. Bob Chow
Dr. Bob Chow received his BSc from the University of Toronto and his PhD from NYU. He did his postdoc at the Hospital for Sick Children and is currently a faculty member at the University of Victoria in the Department of Biology. Dr. Chow’s research is focused on understanding mechanisms that underlie neural development. His lab is primarily interested in gene regulation during retinal development, and how it directs formation of the many different cell types that make up the retina. Much of his research is also focused on genes involved in eye disease. This includes current work on Pax6, a gene that is responsible for ocular disease, aniridia. In addition, his lab was awarded a grant from FBC this year to initiate work on Stargardt disease. Bob currently is a member of FBC’s Scientific Advisory Committee.
Dr. Bridget Ryan
Dr. Bridget Ryan completed her Ph.D. in the Neuroscience program at the University of Victoria, focused on studying a gene, PAX6, important for development of the eye, retina and brain. Mutations in this gene cause the genetic disease aniridia, which negatively impacts vision. During this time, Bridget built valuable skills and expertise in the field of developmental neuroscience.
Following graduation, Bridget continued working as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biology at UVic. She was awarded a Mitacs Postdoctoral Fellowship to study the role of complement factor D in the pathogenesis of Stargardt disease in partnership with Dr. Chow’s lab at UVic and Oak Bay Biosciences. This project provides her the opportunity to apply what she learned during her Ph.D. to a different genetic disease that also impacts vision.
Project: Towards understanding and treating Stargardt disease
Stargardt disease (STGD1) is an autosomal recessive disease with primarily juvenile onset that affects approximately 1:10,000 people and results from mutations in the ABCA4 gene. Although supportive care including the use of sunglasses and reduced vitamin A diets can help slow progression, there are no approved therapies, and all patients are expected to reach legal blindness. Therefore, STGD1 represents an urgent unmet medical need.
The short-term aim of the proposal is to gain insight into the mechanism that drives Stargardt disease pathology. We are utilizing a genetic approach to determine the role of complement system activation (specifically complement factor D which is involved in alternative pathway activation and amplification loop) in Stargardt disease. This research will provide key proof-of-principle data that will guide our long-term aim of developing a gene therapy approach to block the progression of Stargardt disease.
Finally, development of a therapeutic approach to treat Stargardt disease also has the potential for treating those with dry age-related macular degeneration. Although more complex in its etiology, dry AMD and Stargardt disease share key features, namely, a well-established link to the complement system, inflammation and RPE.
Dr. Anna Ells & Dr. Ellen Zhou
Dr. Anna Ells
Dr. Anna Ells earned her MD degree from The University of Ottawa and received her ophthalmology residency training at the University of Ottawa and specialized fellowship training in Pediatric Ophthalmology at The Hospital for Sick Children, and in Medical Retina at the University of Calgary. She is a Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Calgary, as well as an adjunct professor at the Schulich School of Engineering Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Calgary. In addition to her busy practice and surgical schedule, Dr. Ells is an active and accomplished researcher, lecturer, and teacher.
Dr. Tianwei Ellen Zhou
Dr. Tianwei Ellen Zhou obtained her MD and PhD degrees at McGill University. She is now a 4th year Ophthalmology resident at the University of Toronto.
Ellen’s on-going projects are supported by the Clinician Scientist Emerging Leader Award from Fighting Blindness Canada (CSEL-FBC), Projet Spécial – Fonds de recherche en ophtalmologie de l’Université de Montréal (FROUM) and Glaucoma Research Society of Canada Grant (GRSC). Meanwhile, Ellen has been actively engaged in community services and various leadership positions. For her contributions in research and advocacy work, she received the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame Student Award and was inducted to the Scarlet Key Society of McGill University. Upon graduating from McGill, Ellen received the Scriver-Steinberg Convocation Prize that “recognizes a person with exceptional potential to translate knowledge into practice to make a difference in the well-being of patient, family, or community”.
Project: Avastin versus Lucentis in Treating Retinopathy of Prematurity
In Canada, it is estimated that 1 in 13 neonates are born prematurely. The numbers of babies with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP; a blinding retinal disorder that affected premature infants) and neurodevelopmental disorders have increased drastically. Since 2005, anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) agents have become the mainstay treatment for ROP. Currently, 2 anti-VEGF agents – Avastin and Lucentis – are being used in Canada.
Our study contributes to FBC’s mission by identifying an effective and safe medication to treat ROP. When choosing between the 2 agents, the dilemma has been that Avastin seems to be more effective. But it is also more likely to leak into the systemic circulation and lower the level of VEGF – a critical growth factor for brain maturation. Therefore, some physicians believe that Avastin could be associated with a lower neurodevelopmental score. Meanwhile, Lucentis does not seem to affect the systemic level of VEGF. One more consideration: Lucentis is 3 times as expensive as Avastin.
Our multicentre investigation is the FIRST head-to-head study in North America to compare the efficacy and neurodevelopmental outcomes of Avastin and Lucentis. Our study can guide ophthalmologists in choosing the best medication to treat ROP in the most vulnerable babies.
Dr. Patrick Gooi & Dr. Abdullah Al-Ani
Dr. Patrick Gooi
Dr. Patrick Gooi is the Glaucoma Subsection Lead, Fellowship Director, and an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary. He specializes in the surgical management of glaucoma, complex cataract, and anterior segment reconstruction.
In addition to Dr. Gooi’s over 40 publications, he has presented over 75 abstracts, papers, and surgical videos at national and international meetings such as the Canadian Ophthalmological Society, American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons, and the American Glaucoma Society. He is serving as the Chair for the Skills Transfer Course at the Canadian Ophthalmological Society Meeting.
Dr. Abdullah Al-Ani
Dr. Abdullah Al-Ani was born in Mosul, Iraq before immigrating to Canada with his family at age 17. His passion for mathematics, physics and molecular biology inspired him to seek a multidisciplinary PhD degree in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Calgary in Dr. Ungrin’s Laboratory.
Throughout his academic career, Abdullah developed passion for innovation, which led him to collaborate with his colleagues co-found Innovation4health; a student-led initiative that catalyzes the formation of interdisciplinary teams by matching engineers and scientists with clinicians. These multidisciplinary teams produced outstanding solutions for clinical problems in various areas of medicine. The program catalyzed the production of >100 functional prototypes and attracted >$330,000 in funding. In addition to becoming a skillful ophthalmologist, Abdullah’s long-term career goal is to bridge the gap between science, engineering and clinical ophthalmology to catalyze ophthalmic innovation and serve his patients.
Project: A Novel Trabecular Excision Device with Transformative Therapeutic and Diagnostic Potential in Surgical Glaucoma
Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness worldwide, affecting millions of lives and casting substantial economical burden. This project will develop and validate a surgical device that improves glaucoma surgical outcomes, halts ganglion cell layer (GCL) degeneration, and facilitates pathogenesis exploration. Current medical and surgical treatments aim to lower the intraocular pressure (IOP) to cease GCL degeneration. While elevated IOP and aqueous outflow resistance are caused by pathological changes in the trabecular meshwork (TM), these processes remain ambiguous due, at least in part, to the inability to routinely biopsy and interrogate TM tissue. Current glaucoma surgeries are limited by post-operative complications or ineffective reduction of IOP.
Herein, we aim to 1) develop and validate a self-guiding Trabecular Excision device (TED) that reproducibly removes portions of the TM, enhancing aqueous outflow with minimal trauma to surrounding tissue; and, to 2) utilize excised TM tissue to interrogate the mechanisms of TM dysfunction. Implementation of the TED in glaucoma surgery will improve IOP reduction and visual outcomes. Additionally, biopsied TM will permit cellular and molecular analyses, enhancing our understanding of glaucoma pathophysiology and facilitating ex-vivo testing of therapeutic targets. This will ultimately set the stage for earlier intervention, preventing irreversible vision loss, and easing the burden of glaucoma.
Meet the Host
Avis Favaro, health journalist and former Medical Correspondent for CTV National News. Avis Favaro specializes in health stories that can make a difference in the lives of Canadians. Based in Toronto, Favaro is Canada’s longest serving television Medical Correspondent, having started for CTV News in 1992.
Since then she has reported on a wide variety of health issues, including medical errors, drug shortages, mental health, novel therapies for cancer, and the latest therapies for neurological diseases.
Meet the Judges
Chair, FBC Executive Committee; RBC Lawyer
Dr. Michael Naugle
Vice President, Optometric Partnerships, FYidoctors
Dr. Michel Cayouette
Researcher; Chair, FBC Scientific Advisory Board; VP, Research and Academic Affairs, Institut de Recherches Cliniques de Montréal (IRCM); Professor, University of Montréal
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