The U.S. Department of Defense’s Fight Against Blindness

November 25, 2014

Nov. 25, 2014 – Imagine being blind and picking up a bell pepper and instantly recognizing that it’s red or green, or touching a shirt in your closet and having it described along with recommendations for what to wear with it. That’s how Jon E. Froehlich, Ph.D., at the University of Maryland, College Park, describes the capabilities of a new system he’s developing. His technology, designed to enable the blind to “see” with their hands, uses finger-mounted cameras and vibration-feedback devices.

Dr. Froehlich is one of eight recent recipients of U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) grants totaling $5.7 million that have the potential to benefit people with inherited retinal diseases. Many are far-reaching efforts using highly advanced technologies and research techniques, and they’re all among the 22 awards totaling roughly $15 million given through the department’s Vision Trauma Research Program (VTRP).

The program is necessary for a variety of reasons. There are 165,000 blind or visually impaired veterans in the United States, according to the Blind Veterans Association. About 13 percent of the military members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan experienced a serious eye injury. And, as with the civilian population, veterans are sometimes diagnosed with retinal diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa, Stargardt disease and age-related macular degeneration. Because the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) supports vision-saving research, it had a hand in making the VTRP possible.

“My hat goes off to James Jorkasky, executive director at the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR), who, in partnership with FFB, worked tirelessly on Capitol Hill to advocate for VTRP funding,” says William T. Schmidt, the Foundation’s chief executive officer and NAEVR secretary. “James and his staff did a lot of heavy lifting to make this funding possible.”

Below are summaries of the other seven VTRP awards relevant to FFB’s focus on retinal diseases.

Whole Eye Transplants
A whole eye transplant, or WET, is the practice of replacing an eye that’s diseased or injured with a healthy donor eye. As ambitious as the approach seems, two University of Pittsburgh researchers — Kia M. Washington, M.D., and Vijay S. Gorantla, M.D., Ph.D. — are working toward that goal individually. Each researcher, backed by a VTRP grant, is hoping to perform WET in a mammalian model, so that, eventually, the work can be done in humans. The big challenge is to connect the retina to the optic nerve, which is comprised of a million fibers. WET has been performed in reptiles, but doing it successfully in mammals would be a huge step forward. 

Bioprinting Retinal Tissue
The idea of three-dimensional bioprinting to generate new organs and tissues may sound like science fiction, but Shaochen Chen, Ph.D., at the University of California, San Diego, is developing a technique to “print,” or build, new retinal tissues that could be transplanted into patients. Paper is normally the input in a printing process, but in bioprinting, the inputs include cells, proteins, and other biomaterials for building the three-dimensional retinal structure that can be transplanted into humans. 

Retinal Cell Regeneration
Thanks to human studies, there’s strong, growing potential for restoring vision by replacing lost photoreceptors using stem cells. There’s even lab research underway to coax the retina to regenerate its own photoreceptors. Joseph A. Brzezinski, Ph.D., at the University of Colorado Denver, has received a VTRP grant to develop cones from human embryonic stem cells. Cones are the photoreceptors that provide central vision and the ability to read and recognize the faces of loved ones. In contrast, Douglas C. Dean, Ph.D., at the University of Louisville, is exploring the possibility of stimulating the retina’s Muller glia cells to grow new photoreceptors for restoring vision. 

Neuroprotection 
U
sing an eye drop to slow or prevent vision loss may seem “old school” compared to the other approaches being funded by the DOD, but it is the method closest to moving into clinical trials, or human studies. Jeff Mumm, Ph.D., at Johns Hopkins University, is studying potential vision-saving compounds in zebrafish, and actually used funding from FFB to leverage VTRP support. Andrew Pieper, M.D., Ph.D., at the VA Medical Center in Iowa City, Iowa, is developing a compound to prevent cognitive and visual dysfunction in people with traumatic brain injury.