Interview with Glaucoma Researcher Tonia Rex, PhD

GRF awarded Dr. Tonia Rex the Shaffer Prize for Innovative Glaucoma Research in 2012 for her project investigating a neuroprotective therapy in a model of inherited glaucoma.

Dr. Rex is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Vanderbilt Eye Institute, Nashville, Tennessee.

How did a grant from Glaucoma Research Foundation (GRF) allow you to pursue a novel idea?

The Shaffer grant from the Glaucoma Research Foundation provided the funds necessary to perform our study on the efficacy of EPO-R76E gene therapy in a model of glaucoma.

At the time my lab only had a small internal pilot project grant for this study, so the grant from GRF was essential to allow us to perform this study.

Was winning the Shaffer Prize an important recognition?

Winning the Shaffer Prize was a highlight of my career so far. It felt wonderful to be recognized by experts in the field and by such a prestigious organization. I had the extra honor of being introduced at the GRF benefit gala by the sponsor for my Shaffer grant, Dr. Jim Wise. I was glad to have the opportunity to thank him in person for supporting my research.

How did your Shaffer Grant lead to a significant grant from the National Eye Institute to further purse your research?

The Shaffer grant funded a project to test the efficacy of systemic gene delivery of Epo-R76E as a neuroprotective therapy for glaucoma. The results of the study showed protection of 70% of retinal ganglion cell bodies, axons, and visual function. These findings were used as preliminary data and the basis for my hypotheses and rationale for an R01 application to the National Eye Institute (NEI). The grant scored very well and was funded this past spring. I could not have obtained the preliminary data without the support of the Glaucoma Research Foundation.

Now, I have a 5 year funded project to continue my work on neuroprotection gene therapy in a model of glaucoma. Further, I have moved my laboratory to Vanderbilt University to more closely interact with other excellent glaucoma researchers in the Vanderbilt Eye Institute.

Did your 2010 Shaffer Grant from GRF encourage you to focus more of your lab research on glaucoma?

Absolutely. My research background was primarily on the photoreceptors — studying energy metabolism, oxidative stress, retinal detachment, and gene therapy. Glaucoma is a new field for me. As a result of the research performed with funding from the Shaffer grant, I was awarded the 5 year NEI grant. So, now my lab is mainly studying glaucoma.


First published January 10, 2013; Reviewed April 22, 2022