Jan 14, 2020

2019 Research Grant Winners

We’re kicking off 2020, the Year of Vision, with a huge thank you to our generous donors and supportive community. Thanks to your generosity, Fighting Blindness Canada is funding six new research awards in 2020! Last year, we expanded our mission to include all blinding eye diseases, knowing that advances made for one disease often drive innovation and new treatments for others. The research community responded to this larger mandate and we received 48 applications – more than ever before! We invited world-leading experts in vision care and research to review these proposals and following two days of in depth and animated discussion identified the most promising vision research in Canada. Keep reading to learn more…

Finding new treatments for blindness caused by neurotrophic keratophathy

Dr. Gregory Borschel, The Hospital for Sick Children, Research Institute ($300,000)

Neurotrophic keratitis is a degenerative disease that affects the clear outer layer of the eye, called the cornea. In neurotrophic keratitis, nerves in the eye are damaged and the cornea loses the ability to sense stimulation. This leads to injuries, scarring, and eventually vision loss because light cannot pass through the cloudy cornea. Dr. Gregory Borschel helped pioneer a new surgery that can improve vision for people with neurotrophic keratitis, however, it doesn’t work for everyone. Dr. Borschel will use this funding to tackle this problem. His research team has developed the first animal model of neurotrophic keratitis, which will allow them to test strategies to improve nerve regeneration and to identify drugs that can increase the cornea’s ability to heal.

Finding new ways to treat retinitis pigmentosa

Dr Rod Bremner, Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Sinai Health System ($300,000)

Retinitis pigmentosa is one of the most common inherited retinal diseases. People living with retinitis pigmentosa experience gradual vision loss, which is caused by the death of light sensing cells in the retina, called photoreceptors. There is currently no cure for retinitis pigmentosa, and once photoreceptor cells start to die, a person’s vision will continue to worsen. Dr. Rod Bremner is trying to change this by finding ways to stop photoreceptor cell death. His team will identify proteins that cause the cell to die and then use drugs to stop this happening, so that more photoreceptor cells survive. Previously, it could have taken months to find even one protein that could be a potential drug target. However, Dr. Bremner is using an innovative new technology that lets him study almost 800 proteins simultaneously which should increase the probability of finding a new treatment for retinitis pigmentosa.

Developing a new vision test for young children

Dr. Susan Leat, University of Waterloo ($171,300)

There are many causes of childhood vision loss, some of which can lead to complete blindness. By detecting these conditions as early as possible, children stand a better chance of receiving sight-saving treatments or support to improve their quality of life. The current accurate tests for children rely on them being able to identify letters or match shapes, meaning it’s hard to diagnose vision loss in children who are under three years old. Dr. Susan Leat is trying to solve this problem by developing a new vision test specifically for children between the ages of one and three. With this funding, Dr. Leat’s team will determine whether the new test is more sensitive and effective than current assessments. If successful, this will be an easy and inexpensive test that can help diagnose children as early as possible.

Using gene therapy to treat congenital blindness

Dr. Elizabeth M Simpson, University of British Columbia ($296,747)

Aniridia is an eye disorder where the iris, the coloured part of the eye, is partially or completely absent. Individuals with aniridia usually have low vision from birth and develop glaucoma and cataracts, which can lead to blindness. Current treatments may slow the progression of aniridia, but there are currently no cures or treatments to maintain vision long term. Dr. Elizabeth M Simpson is looking to gene therapy for a possible solution. The majority of aniridia cases are caused by a mutation in the PAX6 gene, which plays an important role in eye development. Dr. Simpson’s team will use gene therapy to put a functioning copy of the PAX6 gene back into the eye of mice who have a mutation in PAX6 and assess whether this improves or even restores vision. This project is an important step before we can consider giving this treatment to patients. Dr. Simpson’s research is taking a big leap forward in our search for a cure for aniridia and will also provide important information to help scientists working on gene therapies for other eye diseases.

Retinal degeneration in Usher syndrome

Dr Vincent Tropepe, University of Toronto ($177,500)

Usher syndrome causes hearing and vision loss beginning as early as childhood. It is caused by mutations in genes. While we know many of the genes that are affected, scientists don’t understand how these mutations lead to vision loss. That’s where Dr. Vincent Tropepe’s research comes in. Dr. Tropepe’s team has created fish, zebrafish to be exact, that have a mutation in the pcdh15b gene – a mutation that affects approximately 20% of patients with the most severe form of Usher syndrome, USH1. Dr. Tropepe will use the zebrafish model to study why and how mutations in the pcdh15b gene cause photoreceptor cell death and if gene therapy can help restore sight. This is an exciting first step towards developing new treatments for Usher syndrome.

Investigating the genetic cause of pigmentary glaucoma

Dr. Michael Walter, University of Alberta ($216,000)

Pigmentary glaucoma is a form of glaucoma that occurs when pigment particles from the coloured part of the eye (the iris) are released and clog up the drainage system in the eye. When this happens pressure can build and, if not treated, can cause vision loss or even blindness.  Dr. Michael Walter and his team recently discovered that a mutation in the PMEL gene can cause some forms of pigmentary glaucoma. This is the first time a genetic cause for pigmentary glaucoma has been identified, however we don’t know how the mutation impacts the eye’s drainage system. This funding will allow Dr. Walter to answer this and other questions, and the information will also help other scientists develop new treatments for pigmentary glaucoma in the future.

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