Glaucoma Research Foundation is dedicated to scientific research that deepens our understanding of glaucoma, generates new treatments, and will ultimately cure a disease that is the second leading cause of blindness.
Research takes resources. That’s why, for more than 40 years, we have rallied financial support for science with the potential to break through. Projects we’ve made possible have already changed the game in glaucoma care, starting with the first study to reveal that lowering eye pressure preserves vision. More recently, scientists we’ve funded have made discoveries that could protect or regrow retinal ganglion cells and axons damaged by glaucoma. But we’ve set our sights on something even bigger: a cure that will make glaucoma a thing of the past.
Our leading research program is Catalyst for a Cure. Since 2002, we have recruited scientists from prestigious academic centers across the country to collaborate in unique multi-year, multidisciplinary teams. The first Catalyst for a Cure consortium helped redefine glaucoma as a neurodegenerative disease, in the same family as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). A second team identified new biomarkers that reveal the earliest signs of glaucoma. A third team is now pursing exciting discoveries in vision restoration, from optic nerve regeneration to transplantation to gene manipulation. A fourth team, launched in 2022, is investigating how and why specialized cells in the eye, brain, and spinal cord deteriorate and die, in search of preventative measures and cures for all neurodegenerative conditions.
We also support pioneering scientists with new, untested ideas that hold great promise but may not qualify for traditional sources of support. Our Shaffer Research Grants illustrate the exciting potential we can catalyze with seed funding, which often leads to larger grants from the National Institutes of Health and other prominent sources.
Anna La Torre, PhD: The Catalyst for a Cure is a very unique approach. Because what it does, it puts together different people with different backgrounds, different expertise, different ways of thinking.
Yang Hu, MD, PhD: We have this opportunity to collaborate closely with very top labs throughout the whole country.
Xin Duan, PhD: This opportunity is very, very unique and very valuable.
Derek Welsbie, MD, PhD: By bringing together this team of scientists with very diverse expertise, technologies, we create a synergism and we can achieve things that we weren’t able to do individually.
Anna La Torre: And when you put people that think differently together, we all come up with things that we will never think by ourselves.
Yang Hu: To develop a very comprehensive therapeutic strategy, we need a lot of different expertise.
Derek Welsbie: Xin Duan at UCSF is an expert in optic nerve regeneration. Anna La Torre is an expert in developmental biology and stem cell biology. And Yang Hu is an expert in glaucoma models, CRISPR gene editing. And then there’s myself with high-throughput genetics. Four very different fields, but the intersection of them has allowed for us to make some real progress in the last two years.
Anna La Torre: Glaucoma is not a disease. It’s a group of diseases.
Yang Hu: There’s no treatment. No therapy to solve this neural degeneration problem.
Anna La Torre: The one factor that’s been the one that’s most correlated with developing glaucoma is the pressure — the internal pressure of the eye, or IOP. If you lower the IOP, you can control glaucoma. But we also know that’s not 100% all the time. It’s not it.
Derek Welsbie: While we have therapies for glaucoma patients, there are a fair number where I wish I could do more to control their disease, or I had options to bring back vision they’ve already lost.
Anna La Torre: We need to move from just drugs to lower the IOP, and we need to find ways to really protect the retinal ganglion cells from degeneration. And also we need to find ways to be able to restore vision for these patients.
Yang Hu: The only hope to rescue the already lost neurons or their axons is for regeneration. Regenerate those neurons, or regenerate their axons. That’s what we strive to do here.
Derek Welsbie: Glaucoma is really characterized by the death of a nerve cell that connects your eyeball to your brain. The goals for the Catalyst for the Cure Initiative are twofold. For the cells you have, we want to keep them alive. For the cells that you’ve already lost, we want to have a way of replacing them to improve vision.
Xin Duan: In the past year, my team has dedicated to understand how our eye neurons regenerate and rejuvenate their axons, and how do they reform connections from eye to the brain.
Derek Welsbie: The way we approach this problem is with something called high-throughput genetics. We can take blood from patients, make stem cells, and then make those retinal ganglion cells — the optic nerve cells that are injured in glaucoma. And we can study which genes are responsible for the health of the cells, and which genes might improve regeneration of the cells.
Xin Duan: We have made significant progress to understand how our eye neurons can eventually regrow to the brain to form new connections.
Yang Hu: We have a very deep understanding about neural degeneration now, and we have very promising preliminary results.
Derek Welsbie: Creating a therapy that restores vision is something that science has been after for 50 years. And what’s tremendously exciting is that there’s been more progress in the last five years than probably the preceding 45 years combined.
Anna La Torre: And so having this support from the Glaucoma Research Foundation from all the donors is incredible. This is what keeps the lights on. This is what keeps us working every day. I couldn’t be more thankful to all the people that contribute for this to happen, really. It is basically what keeps us going.
Yang Hu: The only goal of my career, I think, is to conquer glaucoma.
Xin Duan: We’re very passionate about making this happen in the years to come. This is made possible by the generous support from Glaucoma Research Foundation.
Derek Welsbie: This kind of research that we’re doing as a team is only possible because of the generous support of donors. The Glaucoma Research Foundation and the Catalyst for a Cure make possible a type of research that would not get done otherwise.
Anna La Torre: I think the Glaucoma Research Foundation can provide some hope for a cure in the future.
Glaucoma Research Foundation provides seed money for creative pilot research projects that hold promise.
(The printed edition of the Gleams newsletter is only available if you live in the United States or Canada)