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Sep 17, 2014

Discovery Paves Road for New Treatments to Prevent Blindness in Babies

Baby's Face

Babies born with Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), one of the most common causes of vision loss in children, stand to benefit from an exciting discovery made possible, in part, by Fighting Blindness Canada. The discovery was published on September 14, 2014 in the prestigious medical journal, Nature Medicine.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Jean-Sébastien Joyal (Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Centre) and his collaborators from across Canada and the United States have shown that a single receptor plays a critical role in blood vessel growth in the retina. This is important because ROP occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow out of the retina and into the vitreous body. This process may lead to retinal detachment and blindness in ROP. The identification of this receptor, therefore, points researchers to a new target for developing selective drugs to control the abnormal growth of blood vessels and prevent blindness.

Somewhat of a Canadian Doogie Howser, the precocious Dr. Joyal began medical school when he was still a teenager. After completing his MD at McGill University, Dr. Joyal studied to become a pediatrician critical care physician at Hôpital Sainte-Justine. Questions about how blood vessels work led Dr. Joyal to pursue further studies: he completed his PhD in Pharmacology and Therapeutics at McGill University and then continued his research as a postdoctoral scholar at Harvard Medical School in Boston. All of these efforts culminated in this study, which represents an 8-year effort. Three of the study’s authors—Dr. Joyal, Dr. Sylvain Chemtob, and Dr. Przemyslaw Sapieha are all active members of Fighting Blindness Canada’s scientific community.

We are immensely grateful that Dr. Chemtob is currently donating his expertise to Fighting Blindness Canada as an unpaid volunteer a member of our Scientific Advisory Board. Dr. Chemtob, who supervised Dr. Joyal’s PhD research, is a Full Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics, Ophthalmology and Pharmacology at the Université de Montréal, where he also holds a Canada Research Chair in Vision Science and the Leopoldine Wolfe Chair in translational research on macular degeneration.

We are proud also to be supporting the research of Dr. Sapieha at Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont. Dr. Sapieha holds a Canada Research Chair in Retinal Cell Biology and is focusing his FBC-funded research on age-related macular degeneration (AMD). It is so inspiring to see members of our research community working together; their collaborative efforts show how new understandings of basic blood vessel biology have the potential to transform how we treat a variety of retinal diseases.

Indeed, the wider medical research community is excited about this study because the findings have implications not only for ROP and AMD, but also for cancer, which has long been treated with a host of anti-VEGF therapies. Drugs such as Lucentis and Avastin, commonly used to treat wet-AMD, are categorized as anti-VEGF therapies; this is because they act by blocking the effects of a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which contributes to the abnormal blood vessel growth that is characteristic of AMD. Dr. Joyal was recently awarded a Fighting Blindness Canada operating grant, supported by a generous donation from Rx&D, for his research on the relationship between blood vessels and AMD.

In a conversation with Dr. Joyal, he explained that although he did not begin his career researching the eye, he shifted his focus because the eye is “such a beautiful organ” that offers a pathway into the brain and the entire central nervous system; studying the eye provides researchers with an opportunity to learn how neurons (nerve cells, such as those in the brain) work. Dr. Joyal’s research studies the relationship between neurons and blood vessels by asking: how do neurons drive the growth of blood vessels? Blood vessel abnormalities underlie a wide variety of diseases, so the insights from this study regarding the mechanisms that control blood vessel growth have tremendous therapeutic significance.

Thanks to the generosity of its donors, Fighting Blindness Canada is proud to be supporting this ongoing research. Dr. Joyal, who recently opened his first laboratory, is so grateful for your support. He has enthusiastically pledged to thank FBC in all of his future work, because without your support he wouldn’t be where he is today.

About the Study:

Published on September 14, 2014 in Nature Medicine, the paper is titled: “Subcellular localization of coagulation factor II receptor-like 1 in neurons governs angiogenesis.” The 26 co-authors have affiliations with 10 different research institutions, and three of the authors, Dr. Joyal, Dr. Przemyslaw Sapieha and Dr. Sylvain Chemtob are active contributors to FBC’s scientific activities. The co-authors include: Jean-Sébastien Joyal, Satra Nim, Tang Zhu, Nicholas Sitaras, José Carlos Rivera1, Zhuo Shao, Przemyslaw Sapieha, David Hamel, Melanie Sanchez, Karine Zaniolo, Manon St-Louis, Johanne Ouellette, Martin Montoya-Zavala, Alexandra Zabeida, Emilie Picard, Pierre Hardy, Vikrant Bhosle, Daya R Varma, Fernand Gobeil Jr, Christian Beauséjour, Christelle Boileau, William Klein, Morley Hollenberg, Alfredo Ribeiro-da-Silva, Gregor Andelfinger, and Sylvain Chemtob.


Joyal, J. S. et al. 2014. Subcellular localization of coagulation factor II receptor-like 1 in neurons governs angiogenesis. Nature Medicine doi:10.1038/nm.366

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