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Sep 6, 2016

New $1 Million Funding Partnership to Regenerate Vision

Robin Ali and Michel Cayouette

What does it feel like to win the lottery? Just ask Dr. Michel Cayouette, who was awarded close to $1 million in government funding to support his vision research. But really, it’s not quite like winning the lottery. Being awarded a research grant is the result of hard work, dedication, brilliant ideas, excellent evidence, and strong, careful, innovative plans for the future. For Dr. Cayouette, this grant was the culmination of more than a decade of research, which started with a small grant from Fighting Blindness Canada (FBC).

Today, FBC is proud to announce a new funding partnership with the Canadian government to support Dr. Cayouette’s plans to develop a new stem cell therapy for blindness. For every dollar FBC pledges toward Dr. Cayouette’s new project, the Canadian government has pledged almost $10! We are committed to supporting Dr. Cayouette’s work because funding partnerships are needed to make more research possible. Taking a scientific discovery from the laboratory and eventually into the clinic can take years of hard work and millions of dollars. We are thrilled that the Canadian government (specifically, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research—CIHR) are joining in the fight against blindness!

Dr. Cayouette fondly remembers the first day that he received FBC funding for the earliest stage of this project back in 2006, because his daughter was born on the same day! “This CIHR grant would not have been possible without the funding I received from FBC over the past 10 years,” explains Dr. Cayouette. For this, he is incredibly grateful. He also wants to use this opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of supporting basic discovery research. FBC’s early support in this area allowed him to make fundamental discoveries that have led to the ideas that are being developed today, and to collaborations with international leaders who are pioneering new sight-saving therapies. After a decade of work studying how photoreceptor cells are normally produced, and with continuous support from FBC, Dr. Cayouette says that he is now “in a favourable position to move the project closer to translational applications.”

In his new project, Dr. Cayouette is collaborating with Dr. Robin Ali, a world leader in gene and cell replacement therapies for retinal degeneration in the UK. Together, they will study how photoreceptors develop from stem cells, and use this knowledge to design more efficient stem cell therapies. Photoreceptors are essential for vision and they die (degenerate) in many blinding eye diseases, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and retinitis pigmentosa (RP). Replacing lost photoreceptors with new ones is therefore an exciting possibility for treating these diseases.

There are two main kinds of photoreceptors: cones and rods. Cones are needed for central, high acuity vision and are lost during age-related macular degeneration (AMD), Stargardt disease, and during late-stage retinitis pigmentosa (RP). Rods are needed for peripheral and night vision and are the first cells to die in RP. Scientists have shown that during eye development, cones develop first and rods develop last. Dr. Cayouette will study how stem cells switch from a cone-producing mode to a rod-producing mode. By understanding this switch, he plans to develop tools and procedures to coax stem cells to produce either rods or cones, thereby increasing the number of cells that are available for cell transplantation and their propensity to integrate into the degenerated retina.

Dr. Cayouette tells us the importance of his new collaboration with Dr. Ali: “If our results show promise, Dr. Ali’s experience in developing pre-clinical and clinical trials will certainly prove useful as we progress towards translating our work into therapies.”

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