Several research groups funded through the NEI Audacious Goals Initiative (AGI) are developing new imaging tools to see the eye and optic nerve in unprecedented detail. The researchers will use these tools to resolve individual nerve cells. They’ll go beyond examining the cells’ anatomy to measuring the cells’ function; asking not only whether the cells look healthy but whether they act healthy. Ultimately, this advanced imaging technology will be used to test the effects of potential regenerative therapies developed through the AGI. For more information about this research and a look at some stunning images of the visual system captured by scientists — past and present — watch NEI’s video on the AGI.
Six NEI Audacious Goals Initiative (AGI) projects aim to identify biological factors that affect neural regeneration in the retina.
Most irreversible blindness results from the loss of neurons in the retina, which is the light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye. Many common eye diseases, including age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, put these cells at risk. Once these neurons are gone, humans have little if any capacity to replace them.
These six projects will add to the knowledge base from several recent key advances. Researchers recently reported a technique that increases the regenerative capacity of retinal axons in a mouse model of optic nerve injury, a model commonly used to study glaucoma and other optic neuropathies. Progress also has been made in identifying factors that either stimulate or inhibit regeneration of neurons required for vision. The newly-funded projects will further this area of research by identifying cues that guide axons to appropriate targets in the brain, allowing functional connections to re-establish between the eye and the visual processing system.
Models for eye disease research
Five multi-disciplinary teams are developing new disease models for a range of eye conditions. Scientists use disease models throughout the process of developing new treatments. From cell or animal models of eye diseases, researchers can learn the root cause of disease, study the changes that occur to eye tissues as disease progresses, and test potential therapies. New and emerging treatments, like gene therapy or stem cell-based tissue-replacement, also require novel surgical techniques and ways to understand how well therapy is working, all of which must be tested before being tried in humans. Having models that closely match human biology and disease will help vision scientists create and test new methods to preserve and restore sight. Key are models that mimic important aspects of human physiology, including similar light-sensing cells, pathways for connecting the eye to the brain, and brain regions.
Cell integration models
Three AGI-funded projects are developing models to gauge survival and integration of regenerated cells, including light-sensing photoreceptors and retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), which carry visual signals from the retina to the brain.
The three teams will share data and technology with each other and with the AGI Translational Models Consortium. An external scientific oversight committee will closely monitor progress, provide technical recommendations, and assist evaluation of project milestones.