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International Vision Researchers Set To Gather In Utah To Develop Game Plan For Tackling Blinding Diseases

June 18, 2002 — A group of international vision researchers will meet in Salt Lake City this week (June 21-22) to set a timeline for the start of human clinical trials of potentially sight saving therapies already proven to be effective in rats. The meeting, sponsored by the University of Utah’s Moran Eye Center and the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB), will focus on retinal cell transplantation, including the use of stem cells, to treat age-related macular degeneration. Scientists from 19 different universities and research organizations representing five countries will participate in the conference.

“The purpose of this gathering of the minds is not to present new data, but to assess the field of retinal cell transplantation. Our goal is to identify critical areas that require attention and provide direction in making the transition from the laboratory to clinic,” said Raymond D. Lund, Ph.D., professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the Moran Eye Center and conference chair. “The ultimate product of this meeting will be a written plan that charts a path toward clinical treatments with expected timelines and identification of outstanding obstacles and possible solutions.”

The conference follows on the heels of research published earlier this year in the scientific journal Nature Neuroscience that demonstrated a human retinal pigment epithelial cell line could be successfully transplanted into rats with a genetic predisposition to retinal degeneration. Following transplantation, researchers found that the transplanted cells survived in the rats and preserved the rats’ ability to see. The research was led by Lund and a team of scientists at the Moran Eye Center in cooperation with scientists in the United Kingdom.

Lund says transplantation as a potential treatment for retinal disease, either to limit photoreceptor loss or to replace diseased photoreceptors in the retina, has been under investigation for more than 15 years. However, successful translation to the clinic has proven elusive. “There are many reasons for this lack of progress, including the complexity of the approach, the few groups that have explored it, and a lack of consensus on analytical standards. Our hope is that this meeting will help resolve these issues,” he said.

The meeting also will address recent findings in the field of vision restoration including the use of stem cells or cell lines as donor cells, and the use of endogenous progenitor cells as tissue reconstructors which ultimately could alleviate the need for transplantation altogether. More than six million Americans suffer from inherited retinal diseases such as macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and Usher’s syndrome. An additional 15 million Americans have pre-symptomatic signs of macular degeneration that may lead to vision loss. There is currently no cure or effective treatment for these diseases.

About The Foundation Fighting Blindness:

Based in Owings Mills, Maryland, the mission of The Foundation Fighting Blindness is to find the causes, treatments, preventions, and cures for retinitis pigmentosa (RP), macular degeneration, Usher syndrome and the entire spectrum of retinal degenerative diseases. The Foundation funds over 155 research studies at 55 prominent institutions. The Foundation funds leading-edge research in promising areas such as genetics, gene therapy, retinal cell transplantation, retinal implants and pharmaceutical and nutritional therapies. Since its inception in 1971, The Foundation has raised $150 million for retinal degenerative disease research. The Foundation has more than 45 volunteer-led Affiliates across the United States. These dedicated volunteers raise funds, increase public awareness, and provide support to their communities.

About the University of Utah’s Moran Eye Center:

The University of Utah’s Moran Eye Center serves the five million residents of the Intermountain West and is home to the University of Utah medical school’s Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. The center takes a comprehensive approach to fighting blindness. The center’s basic science researchers are tackling blinding diseases from both a biological and human engineered approach. Major research areas include artificial vision, ophthalmic genetics, retinal cell communication, retinal cell transplantation, and vision restoration through surgery and gene therapy. The center’s mix of clinical and basic science research makes it uniquely suited to translate discoveries made in the lab into treatments in the clinic.