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Study to investigate stem cell therapy as potential glaucoma treatment

NIH awards $6.7M total to research team that includes OHSU Casey Eye Institute
A doctor checks a patient's eyes.
A doctor checks a patient's eyes. About 3 million U.S. residents have glaucoma, which can cause vision loss and blindness by damaging the optic nerve in the back of the eye. (Getty Images)

Oregon Health & Science University is part of a national research project investigating stem cell therapy as a potential treatment for glaucoma, the world’s second leading cause of blindness.

With support from the National Institutes of Health, the project is studying human stem cells that are made into retinal ganglion cells, neurons involved in sight that are damaged by glaucoma. The research team will transplant the cells into an animal model of glaucoma.

About 3 million U.S. residents have glaucoma, which can cause vision loss and blindness by damaging the optic nerve in the back of the eye. There is no cure for glaucoma, and the vision loss it causes can’t be restored. Right now, glaucoma’s progression can be only slowed with early treatments that involve medicated eye drops, lasers or surgery. Researchers hope stem cell therapy can stabilize or reverse glaucoma.

Some of the challenges involved in making this potential treatment work include successfully transplanting the cells, as well as enabling the transplanted cells to avoid rejection by the immune system and to form connections in both the eye and the brain. The research team will specifically explore ways to make the stem cell-derived neurons survive and better integrate into the eye.

A picture of Benjamin Sivyer, Ph.D. (OHSU). A man wearing a suit, smiling.
Benjamin Sivyer, Ph.D. (OHSU)

As part of the study, OHSU Casey Eye Institute researcher Benjamin Sivyer, Ph.D., will evaluate whether lab-transplanted cells respond to light, are successfully transplanted and form the eye-retina connections needed for vision.

The research team also includes Jason Meyer, Ph.D., of Indiana University, Brad Fortune, O.D., Ph.D., of Legacy Research Institute, Yvonne Ou, M.D., of University of Californian San Francisco and Gareth Howell, Ph.D., of The Jackson Laboratory.

The National Eye Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, is supporting the study. The NEI has awarded the project a total of about $6.7 million over five years, under grant # 1U24EY033269. More information about this and two other new neuron studies are in an NEI announcement.

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