NEI director’s message

Updates, challenges, progress and the 50-year celebration
Paul A. Sieving, MD, PhD, FARVO 

NEI launched the Eyes of Infants with Zika (EIZ) study in June with the help of Brazilian investigators. As you may recall, in summer 2015 epidemiologists observed that Zika virus infection during pregnancy could result in babies with severe microcephaly. In response to this alarming news, NIH mounted a multi-Institute effort to follow a Zika-exposed cohort of pregnant women to study the effects of prenatal Zika infection. The NEI study is a response to the 2016 findings by Brazilian ophthalmologists who reported retinal lesions in infants with microcephaly, presumably due to Zika exposure in utero. EIZ is an epidemiological study that includes six sites with high Zika exposure in South America and Puerto Rico. The investigation will shed light on the early developmental biology of vision and the deleterious consequences of Zika infection.

Budget discussions
NEI’s $733 million budget for fiscal year 2017 represents a net 3.4% increase over FY2016. That is on par with budget increases at a number of other NIH institutes. Meanwhile, President Trump has requested $550 million for FY2018, which would be a 25% drop. To minimize the impact to research, the president’s request proposed capping indirect costs of NIH grants, including facilities and administration. Both the House and Senate voiced opposition to this proposal. In July, the House Appropriations Committee passed a bill that would increase the NEI budget to $744 million, 1.5% over FY2017. The congressional bill also prevents changes to the indirect cost reimbursements. These complex issues will be addressed during continued budget negotiations this fall.

Organoid Challenge
The NEI 3-D Retina Organoid Challenge (3-D ROC) is on track to support development of improved 3-D retina culture systems. The idea is for these “retinas in a dish” to recapitulate the complexity and function of the human retina for modeling disease and testing therapies. The ideation phase, which closed August 1, solicited several promising concept proposals. NEI announced winners of the $90,000 in September. We are launching a second phase later in 2017 to invite participants to show the feasibility of their ideas with publication-quality data. Participants in phase 2 need not have participated in phase 1. Winners of the second phase will share $1 million in prize money.

Progress in Regenerative Medicine
The NEI Audacious Goals Initiative, which supports the development of regenerative therapies for retinal neurons, is making exciting progress. A March 2017 report in the ARVO journal Translational Vision Science & Technology addresses regeneration of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), which are crucial for carrying visual information to the brain. An AGI workshop was held on this topic in 2016. Monica Vetter, PhD, of the University of Utah, and Peter Hitchcock, PhD, of the University of Michigan, authored the report in which they compiled a summary of workshop discussions and made recommendations for approaches to replacing RGCs in humans. Since 2015, NEI has held town-hall meetings at the ARVO Annual Meeting to help move new regenerative therapies into the clinic.

NEI 50th Anniversary
Next year will mark 50 years since Congress created the National Eye Institute in 1968. We are planning several events to celebrate our anniversary. The first will be a symposium, “Vision and the Brain,” addressing the contribution of visual systems neuroscience to action, perception, and cognition. This event will occur on Nov. 10 at 9:00am to 6:00pm in Washington, D.C. A complete list of speakers and a registration link are on our NEI website.