GRF Scientific Advisors discuss the Importance of Biomarkers for Glaucoma

Catalyst for a Cure (CFC) is a collaborative team of investigators funded by Glaucoma Research Foundation.

Catalyst for a Cure (CFC) is a collaborative team of investigators funded by Glaucoma Research Foundation. The research team is charged with finding new, specific and sensitive biomarkers for glaucoma.

Leading glaucoma experts serve on the CFC Scientific Advisory Board. Four of those experts took time from their annual meeting with the scientists in San Francisco to talk about the significance of biomarkers for glaucoma, and the progress of the CFC collaborative research team.

The video features interviews with Martin Raff, MD (University College London), Russell Van Gelder, MD, PhD (University of Washington), Monica Vetter, PhD (University of Utah), and Martin B. Wax, MD (PanOptica, Inc.).

Video Transcript

Russell Van Gelder, MD, PhD: There is a lot of buzz around biomarkers. And I think the reason that the board felt that this was an appropriate focus area is that there’s been great progress in other areas of medicine in finding biomarkers.

The idea of a biomarker is that it’s some sort of a signal that someone is going to have a certain outcome. So, if you have high cholesterol, you know you’re at a higher risk for a heart attack, for example, or if you have high blood pressure, that’s a biomarker for having a stroke. We don’t have biomarkers for glaucoma.

Martin Raff, MD: You need a way of being able to quantify progression of a disease. And that’s where you need a biomarker. In particular, to see the early stages before you’ve actually lost vision but you know that if it carries on, you will lose vision. That’s the goal. Trying to be able to make the diagnosis early and to quantify progression so that you can measure the effects of an intervention. That’s the idea. So, absolutely fundamental. And these people are doing it largely by refining imaging technology.

Martin B. Wax, MD: The progress has been extraordinary. I think the key finding that they have published already, is that they have found that there is certain cell type in the retina, in a certain area of the retina, that may act as the so-called “canary in the coal mine” and be the first indicator that something is going wrong in glaucoma.

Monica Vetter, PhD: And so now the group is very focused on what it is that’s happening in that specific region of the retina. They’re applying their advanced imaging methodologies to focus on that region of the retina, and trying to look at all the other structures that might be involved.

Because it suggests that there is something very unique that’s happening at that point that could potentially be the “canary in the coal mine” and tell us when things are about to go wrong before we’ve advanced to the point where there is major vision loss.

Martin Raff, MD: Glaucoma, in the end, is a disease of the retinal ganglion cells – the cells in the eye that send their nerve process to the brain, carrying information about vision. And those cells degenerate and eventually die as the disease progresses. That’s the nature of the disease.

So, there’s 20 kinds of different retinal ganglion cells in the eye. And the question is: are they all equally susceptible? And it turns out that there is one particular type of retinal ganglion cell called an OFF cell that sends its processes to a particular layer in the retina that seems to be exquisitely sensitive.

And if that’s true — and there’s now evidence from other labs as well — that’s a huge advance. Because it enables you to focus on a cell that you know is sensitive. That you know is going to degenerate and die, and they can see changes very early on, before anyone had seen such changes. To me, that’s a huge advance.


First posted January 6, 2017; Last reviewed June 22, 2022