Catalyst for a Cure
Catalyst for a Cure is Glaucoma Research Foundation’s flagship research program. Groundbreaking, collaborative, committed to results — this unique discovery model brings great minds together to deliver a future free from glaucoma.
Why Restore Vision?
Dr. Anna La Torre, an investigator with the Vision Restoration Initiative, explains why restoring vision is such a challenge.
Anna La Torre, PhD: The goal of the Catalyst for a Cure Vision Restoration Team is to really bring together our expertise to try to find some ways to restore vision in patients that have lost, partially or totally, their vision in glaucoma.
Restoring vision is a really challenging goal. So we’re trying to cover all our bases, and the first thing we’re trying to do is something called neuroprotection. We try to find ways to protect the cells that are still there and try to rewire the axons of the retinal ganglion cells. These are the little wires that connect the retina with the brain at the stage of a disease that the cells are still there, but this little connection is slowly degenerating. The other thing that we are trying to develop is technologies to be able to transplant new cells after the normal cells of a patient have already degenerated. So that second [goal] is a lot more challenging, but we are hopeful that we can make a difference.
I am a developmental biologist, and my passion is to understand how embryos develop and to understand how stem cells are able to make all these different cell types that make a human body including the eye. And so, in the lab we figured out the ways that stem cells make retinal cells, and we can apply that into cultures in a dish. Now we can create retinal cells in Petri dishes, and we can really scale up the production of these cells.
The final goal of creating the cells in the lab is to then have donor cells for transplantation approaches. So the final goal is to be able to collect the cells that we make in the lab, transplant them in the eye of a patient and hopefully find ways to really correctly rewire the lost connections.
I became a scientist because I think I’m a very curious person, and so I always wanted to know how things work, how cells work. But also, probably during my postdoc, I really wanted to make a difference for human health and to have research that’s really meaningful and improve human lives.
For me being part of the [Catalyst for a Cure] team is a unique opportunity. So, by bringing all of us together, we can create a project that wouldn’t be possible in any of our labs by themselves. And so, to me, I’m learning a lot from the other team members, but we’re also creating something together that hopefully is something very unique and can really lead to important discoveries.
I am very optimistic. I think that science is now progressing at the rate that we’ve never seen before. There’s new discoveries every day that really change everything we can do, and so what we’re trying to achieve is absolutely challenging and difficult. It’s going to take a while and lots of effort, but I’m really hopeful that we will be able to restore vision at some point in the future.
We are engineering stem cells to try to make them better at being donor cells. We are engineering them in ways so we can screen how we can get them to really engraft in a host retina after we transplant them and how we can get them to survive better after the transplantation and extend these axons that are really what’s needed to restore vision in the future.
Catalyst for a Cure grows from two research realities: Discovery happens faster when talented scientists work together. And breakthroughs don’t occur unless people invest in them.
Driven by our mission to catalyze a quantum leap in glaucoma care, Glaucoma Research Foundation engages scientists and philanthropists in a unique proposition: With support from donors who share our quest for a cure, our team of advisors selects four top researchers from four leading institutions to form a consortium dedicated to eradicating glaucoma. Investigators partner for three years, generating discoveries future teams can build on. Based on progress, the Foundation board may vote to extend a consortium’s funding for three additional years.
Launched in 2002, the first team of investigators (CFC1) changed the conventional understanding of glaucoma as an eye disease to a new understanding of glaucoma as a neurodegenerative disease, revealing the possibility of new therapeutic approaches. From 2012 to 2018, the second Catalyst for a Cure (CFC2), the Biomarker Initiative, identified novel indicators of disease, enabling clinicians to detect, measure, and treat glaucoma with unprecedented precision.
In 2019, in partnership with generous supporters, we launched CFC3, the Steven and Michele Kirsch Catalyst for a Cure Vision Restoration Initiative. Leveraging discoveries from the first two CFC teams, four investigators are speeding the quest to restore vision lost to glaucoma. Early results have been extremely promising, leading the way for new genetic, neuroprotective, and cell replacement therapies and bringing us ever closer to a cure.
The Catalyst for a Cure discovery model is unique in the world of scientific research. Usually, scientists work individually and often compete for grant money. In contrast, Catalyst for a Cure investigators, working out of their own labs at prestigious academic centers across the country, pursue promising leads together. They design their research in partnership, report results as a team, and, learning from and inspiring each other, generate insights much more quickly than they could working alone. Through their generous donations, supporters of Glaucoma Research Foundation make this unique and important progress possible.
CFC3: The Steven and Michele Kirsch Catalyst for a Cure Vision Restoration Initiative
CFC2: The Biomarker Initiative
CFC1: The Inaugural Initiative
Glaucoma is a complex disease in which damage to the optic nerve leads to progressive vision loss. Today’s treatments, which work by lowering pressure in the eye, can only preserve remaining vision. They don’t improve or restore vision that already has been lost to glaucoma.
Restoring vision in patients with glaucoma has been a tremendous challenge. As part of the central nervous system, the optic nerve cannot regenerate itself naturally after injury. Consequently, scientists seeking vision restoration solutions must find innovative ways to regrow or replace retinal ganglion cells and axons, which make up the optic nerve.
Status: Initiated in 2019. Currently funded through 2024.
Xin Duan, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Ophthalmology and Physiology
Weill Institute for Neurosciences
University of California, San Francisco
Dr. Duan’s laboratory investigates retinal ganglion cells subtype-intrinsic factors and tests their roles in optic nerve regeneration and vision recovery.
Yang Hu, MD, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Ophthalmology
Stanford University School of Medicine
The Hu laboratory focuses on the mechanisms responsible for neuronal degeneration and axon regeneration while maintaining a consistent focus on clinically relevant scenarios and therapies that will translate into effective vision restoration treatments.
Anna La Torre, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy
School of Medicine, University of California, Davis
Dr. La Torre’s laboratory focuses on generating retinal ganglion cells from stem cells to enhance axonal growth and cell survival and ultimately, to use these cells as donor cells for cell replacement therapies and disease modeling.
Derek Welsbie, MD, PhD
Associate Professor of Ophthalmology, San Diego Shiley Eye Institute
University of California, San Diego
San Diego, CA
The Welsbie lab focuses on identifying genes that are causally involved in retinal ganglion cell death, degeneration, and regeneration, as well as developing new neuroprotective drug therapies for retinal ganglion cells.
Promising leads are already emerging from the collaboration of vision restoration investigators. In late 2021, the team reported dramatic progress in two areas: developing therapies to transplant retinal ganglion cells and exploring ways to preserve and enhance the eye’s neurological connections. As their collaboration continues, investigators will continue to refine their approaches to retinal ganglion cell transplantation using various glaucoma models, both retina and optic nerve, and test treatments they have already identified to improve the survival of cells. They are moving ever closer to therapeutic approaches for the human eye that, ultimately, can be tested in clinical trials.
A biomarker is an early indicator of disease, often identified on a cellular level. Finding new biomarkers for glaucoma could help predict the disease or diagnose it earlier, before patients show symptoms; enable doctors to tailor treatment to individual patients; and speed the development of new therapeutic targets to preserve vision.
Chosen for their particular expertise in biomedical imaging, physics, retinal cell biology, neurobiology, and clinical ophthalmology, members of the second Catalyst for a Cure consortium set out to identify changes in the retinal ganglion cells that are first affected in glaucoma, before any vision is lost.
Status: Initiated in 2012. Completed in 2018.
Alfredo Dubra, PhD
Associate Professor of Ophthalmology
Stanford University School of Medicine
The main goal of the Dubra lab is to develop non-invasive optical imaging methods for early detection and monitoring of eye disease. The lab pursues a multidisciplinary approach, with a major focus on translating techniques and analytical tools from physics, astronomy and mathematics into robust quantitative diagnostic tools.
Jeffrey L. Goldberg, MD, PhD
Professor and Chair, Department of Ophthalmology
Stanford University School of Medicine
Dr. Goldberg’s research is directed at neuroprotection and regeneration of retinal ganglion cells and other retinal neurons. His laboratory is developing novel stem cell and nanotherapeutics approaches for ocular repair, studying retinal ganglion cell development, survival and axon regeneration in glaucoma, and investigating the cellular basis for the developmental loss of axon growth ability.
Andrew D. Huberman, PhD
Associate Professor, Departments of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology
Stanford University School of Medicine
The purpose of the Huberman laboratory is to research and understand how the retinal and brain circuits that underlie vision wire up during development and to develop new strategies to monitor, prevent, and treat retinal ganglion cell loss in glaucoma. Dr. Huberman is a neuroscientist who has made many contributions to the brain development, brain plasticity, and neural regeneration and repair fields.
Vivek Srinivasan, PhD
Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Ophthalmology & Vision Science, and Chancellor’s Fellow, University of California, Davis
Department of Biomedical Engineering, Davis, California
The Srinivasan Biophotonics Laboratory develops novel optical imaging techniques and diagnostics with applications spanning from basic to clinical research. In particular, the lab is interested in neuronal control of hemodynamics and metabolism both in health and disease in the central nervous system, including the retina and brain. Their highly interdisciplinary approach combines cutting edge imaging technologies with collaborations ranging from neurobiology to neurology and ophthalmology to test fundamental hypotheses and explore the diagnostic implications.
Conducting a detailed, systematic analysis of retinal ganglion cells (RCGs), partners found one subtype that changes its shape much earlier in the disease. They then developed techniques to identify whether these and other potential candidate biomarkers may signal early changes that lead to vision loss.
Moving from the laboratory to the clinic, team members tested their top biomarker candidates and used computers and virtual reality to develop potential new non-drug therapies. CFC2 research has already resulted in at least two new clinical trials to protect vision. With funding from the National Eye Institute, the four individual scientists are continuing their important research initiatives.
With much to be discovered in the quest for a cure for glaucoma, Glaucoma Research Foundation launched its first Catalyst for a Cure initiative with the conviction that collaboration among leading scientists from diverse disciplines could initiate transformative progress. Participants were chosen for their particular expertise in neurobiology, ophthalmology and developmental genetics. To ensure a fresh perspective and bring new ideas to accelerate a cure, the consortium included specialists who were not previously studying glaucoma. This team of pioneers’ findings have redefined our understanding of how glaucoma steals sight and opened the door for new therapeutic approaches to the disease.
Status: Initiated in 2002. Completed in 2012.
David J. Calkins, PhD
Vice-Chairman and Director of Research;
Denis M. O’Day Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Neuroscience and Psychology
Director, Vanderbilt Vision Research Center
Vanderbilt Eye Institute, Nashville, Tennessee
The Calkins lab focuses on the mechanisms of neurodegeneration in glaucoma. Using systems, cellular and molecular approaches, they investigate how risk factors contribute to neurodegeneration and test new treatments. Dr. Calkins specializes in molecular mechanisms of the retina and optic nerve.
Philip J. Horner, PhD
Professor of Neuroregeneration, Institute for Academic Medicine
Scientific Director, Center for Neuroregeneration
Houston Methodist, Weill Cornell Medical College
The Horner lab is focused on neurodegeneration and neural regeneration in models of glaucoma and spinal cord injury. The lab established a reliable glaucoma model that helped the team to study and test hypotheses. Dr. Horner’s experience in spinal cord injury and glial cells, applied to glaucoma, led to new findings on the role of gliosis and oxidative stress in glaucoma.
Nicholas Marsh-Armstrong, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Science
University of California, Davis
The Marsh-Armstrong laboratory studies molecular mechanisms involved in gene regulation, development and disease of the central nervous system, focusing principally on the retina. Marsh-Armstrong has identified gamma-synuclein aggregates in glaucoma in the CFC model of glaucoma — an important finding relating glaucoma to other neurodegenerative diseases.
Monica L. Vetter, PhD
Professor and Chair, Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, Utah
The Vetter lab is studying glaucoma at the molecular level to understand how genetics influence and determine the fate of neurons in the retina and central nervous system. Their goal is to reveal principles governing cell biology that will lead to new disease treatments. Dr. Vetter is committed to better understanding the role of microglia in retinal ganglion cell pathology in glaucoma.
The first CFC delivered promising results on two fronts: preventing vision loss from late-stage glaucoma, and therapeutic treatment to stop glaucoma before it starts. One of the team’s most important accomplishments was the discovery that the first impacts of glaucoma show up not in the eye but in the visual centers of the brain, among tiny energy batteries in the nerves, known as mitochondria. This discovery led to the identification of a window of opportunity for preventing vision loss in the early stages of glaucoma progression, when optic nerve fibers are attempting to repair themselves.
Findings like these form the basis of the team’s revelation that glaucoma is not just a condition of the eye; it is a neurodegenerative disease in the same family as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Research results published by the first CFC team have resulted in nearly 8,000 citations by other scientists.
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