When the VISIONS 2012 conference began yesterday, the Foundation’s Science Department’s intensive work had already begun. On Wednesday afternoon, we put 15 members of our Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) in a meeting room at the hotel under lock and key. For the next 24 hours, we gave them only bread and water, forbidding access to friends and loved ones, and, perhaps most Draconian, we cut off their wi-fi access.
Why the drastic measures for the brilliant and insightful men and women fighting blindness? They’re engaging in a rigorous review process – which takes place, in part, each year at VISIONS – to determine what grants we’ll fund next year. There are about 70 different proposals being discussed, reviewed and scored. Some are for individual investigator grants, others for projects being run under the auspices of our collaborative research centers.
The grants review process began last fall when investigators from around the world submitted letters of intent (LOI) summarizing their proposed research. Their projects run the gamut, from gene therapy to stem cells to pharmaceuticals. Some efforts are directed at specific diseases, others are cross-cutting. We asked about one-third of those who submitted LOIs to send a full proposal, and those projects are what we’re reviewing now.
So what makes a good research project? There are a lot of factors, but, most important, it needs to be an effort that is scientifically sound and plays a role in the advancement of treatment and cures. We are willing to take some risks if the returns bring us closer to saving and restoring vision. As an example, back in the mid-1990s, gene therapy was considered risky, but now there are gene therapy clinical trials underway around the world, some of which are restoring vision.
Because there is so much great science available today, we can only fund a fraction of the high quality research efforts proposed to us. And while I can’t tell you exactly what the funding outcomes of the review process will be just yet, I do know that we would need somewhere in the neighborhood of an additional $4 million to fund all the projects we’d like to fund, and that’s just for the first year of these multi-year grants.
Well, I need to get back to doling out bread and water — I really am a nice guy at heart — but I look forward to reporting the results from the review process later this summer.
In the meantime, stay tuned for more science updates from VISIONS.
– Dr. Steve Rose
Pictured above: Dr. Eric Pierce, chairman of the SAB, and Amy Laster, FFB’s grants and awards program manager