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Kellogg scientist wins NIH award for "audacious" concept in vision research

Julia Richards proposes "fountains of youth for the eyes" to turn back the eye’s aging process

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Suppose we could turn back the clock on the aging process in the eye so that diseases like age-related macular degeneration or glaucoma would start 10, 20, or 30 years later than they now do. A University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center scientist has proposed a way to get there.

"Because these eye diseases tend to occur later in life, delaying their onset would also delay vision loss among older individuals and ensure better quality of life," says Julia E. Richards, Ph.D., the Harold F. Falls Collegiate Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the U-M Medical School and professor of Epidemiology in the U-M School of Public Health.

Richards is one of 10 recipients across the nation to win an award for Audacious Goals in Vision Research, a challenge sponsored by the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.  The NEI sought research concepts that were relevant to its mission and could be considered bold, unconventional, or exceptionally innovative; broad in scope; and potentially attainable in about 10 years.

Richards’ proposal, Fountains of Youth for the Eye, draws on her years of work in glaucoma genetics.  Complex diseases like AMD and glaucoma are thought to be caused by a combination of environmental factors and multiple gene mutations. Now Richards proposes that, instead of developing many separate treatments for all of the different late-onset diseases, it might be possible to use one general approach that would delay the development and onset by “backshifting” the ocular aging process.

“We have learned from longevity research that it is possible to intervene in aging,” she says.  “Applying the concept to the eye will require that we learn a great deal more about the normal aging process at the cellular and molecular levels, and that we identify and design novel drugs to target events in the developmental process of aging.”

She continues, “If this audacious goal is achieved, we could slow down ocular aging and delay the start of late-onset eye diseases.” And she asks, “If we lengthen the development time line by enough, can we push disease onset beyond an individual’s lifespan so that we essentially prevent the disease altogether?”

Along with the other award winners, Richards will present her concept at the NEI Audacious Goals Development Meeting, Feb. 24-26 in the Washington, D.C. area. Ultimately, the most compelling audacious goals will help to frame new research directions over the next decade for the NEI and the broader vision research community.

Concepts submitted by other award winners ranged from regenerative medicine and stem cells to neuroscience, genetics, drug development, and artificial vision and prosthetics. During the judging process, experts in the vision community helped narrow the field of 476 entries to 81 final candidates. A panel of 13 clinicians and scientists then selected the 10 winning ideas.

“The Audacious Goals initiative was born out of the NEI strategic planning process, however it is much more than a standard strategic planning exercise,” said Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D., NEI director and former Kellogg faculty member. “We are envisioning the future. When we look back 10 to 12 years from now, what do we want to have accomplished? The Audacious Goals initiative will help propel us into that future.”

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To learn more about Dr. Richards’ research, visit   www.kellogg.umich.edu/bios/richards.research.html

To learn more about the Audacious Goals Challenge, visit  www.nei.nih.gov/challenge.

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