An Eye to the Future

by Paul A. Sieving, MD, PhD

Paul Sieving, MD, PhDFor the first time in quite a while, NIH started the fiscal year fully funded. With NEI’s three-percent increase to $772M, we enter our 51st year excited and ready to fund vision and ophthalmic research. The new year brings exciting developments in the Audacious Goals Initiative (AGI) for Regenerative Medicine, and our 3-D Retina Organoid Challenge (3-D ROC) has reached its final stage. And last but not least, I’m pleased to share information about several new NIH programs of potential interest to the ARVO community.

Audacious Goals Initiative for Regenerative Medicine

The NEI AGI is helping to develop new tools and knowledge to support future attempts at regenerative medicine for eye disease. In 2018, we funded five research teams to develop new animal models for eye disease. These models will fill the gaps in our translational science pipeline, enabling high-quality pre-clinical studies into an array of neuroregenerative therapies and other treatments. At the same time, teams in the AGI Imaging Consortium have begun to reveal key breakthroughs in techniques that will allow researchers to monitor regeneration of retinal tissue in vivo. Several team investigators will be speaking at the AGI workshop at the upcoming ARVO meeting in May 2019, and I encourage you to attend the workshop to hear about these exciting new imaging developments.

3-D Retina Organoid Challenge

Two years ago, at the 2017 ARVO Meeting, we challenged researchers to develop 3-D retina organoids, structures that recapitulate ex vivo the complex structure of the human retina. In September 2017, we announced a winner of the first, ideation stage of the challenge, honoring Erin Lavik, ScD, and her team from the University of Maryland Baltimore County for their idea of screen-printing retinal tissues. The second stage, 3-D ROC 2020, with a $1M prize on the line, asks contestants to develop prototype retina organoids. An initial $25,000 was awarded to Wei Liu, PhD, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and his team, at the Fall 2018 check-in. But the remaining $975,000 is still available for the final prize next year. We’re eagerly looking forward to seeing the final entries from the competing teams! More about 3-D ROC.

New NIH Programs

This past year, NIH launched two scientific initiatives that may be of interest to you. The HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative funds research programs to better address pain management and opioid addiction, as well as to advance our understanding of the fundamentals of chronic pain.

The INCLUDE (INvestigation of Co-occurring conditions across the Lifespan to Understand Down syndromE) project is funding high-risk basic and translational science projects involving trisomy 21, and supporting clinical research into conditions that affect people with Down syndrome. Since Down syndrome can affect eye development and vision, this project overlaps with NEI’s central mission.

Finally, artificial intelligence (AI) has become ubiquitous in the 21st century, pervading everything from our internet searches and family photos to medical practice. The new imaging methods being developed to visualize the eye in unprecedented detail also generate unprecedented volumes of data and require new, AI-based methods to process and analyze the data. The NIH Common Fund has announced their new STRIDES (Science and Technology Research Infrastructure for Discovery, Experimentation, and Sustainability) Initiative, which is building new partnerships between NIH and commercial cloud data service providers. The eventual goal of this program is to work with researchers and extramural institutions to provide access to data storage and cloud computing resources. Stay tuned for more details as the STRIDES Initiative gets underway.