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Tuesday
May282013

A Perspective on the ARVO Vision Science Meeting

by Dr. Jerry Chader, Professor and Chief Scientific Officer of the Doheny Retina Institute, University of Southern California Medical School, ORSF Medical Director

The annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision & Ophthalmology (ARVO) took place in Seattle, WA from May 5-9, 2013. With around 10,000 participants, most presenting talks and posters, it represents the largest congregation of basic scientists and clinicians doing vision research in the world. For me, it is a very exciting (and tiring!) week trying to learn all the latest in how eye tissues function, how eye diseases develop and what new therapies will soon become available to halt or reverse the progression of vision loss.

The meeting encompasses all tissues of the eye from the front (cornea) to the back (retina). I found the retina sessions were the most important and exciting since retinal diseases such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and diabetic retinopathy account for most of the yet untreated vision loss and blindness in Americans. Although much basic research was reported, it is heartening to see that, over the last few years, there is increasing emphasis on reports on translational work from the laboratory bench to the clinic, leading to human clinical trials. Thus, new drugs, new surgical techniques, new prosthetic devices and new methods of drug delivery were in the forefront of the scientific presentations. Also, new techniques of stem cell and transplantation biology were presented that could restore vision in the future to many with severe retinal or corneal disease. Following are just a few examples of groundbreaking work reported at the ARVO meeting:

  • One highlight was an update on a retinal prosthetic device that successfully restores some functional vision to those functionally blind with advanced retinal degenerative disease such as retinitis pigmentosa (RP). In RP, the photoreceptor cells of the retina are lost and the prosthetic device replaces the function of these cells to capture an external image and ultimately transmit it to the brain to form a visual image. The device has recently been approved for implantation in the USA with hopes that it can soon be used in patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD).     

  • Another significant advance was reported in the use of stem cells to replace degenerated retinal cells such as ganglion cells (in glaucoma) or photoreceptor cells (in RP or AMD). Stem cells have the potential to be transformed (“differentiate”) into any cell of the body and could restore vision even in advanced cases of retinal disease if given the proper conditions for development.

  • Another amazing leap forward has been made in the research area called Optogenetics. Many lower life forms such as algae contain light-sensing proteins that, through sophisticated techniques of molecular biology,  can be replicated and inserted (“transfected”) into mammalian retinal cells. In exciting preclinical experiments, it has been demonstrated that, through Optogenetics, some functional vision can be restored in animal models of severe retinal degeneration. Hopefully, human trials are not too far in the future!

  • Epidemiological studies can give us an insight into how to diminish our chances of getting eye disease. A new study, for example, links caffeinated coffee to a specific type of vision loss. In the Swedish population, greater intake of caffeinated coffee had previously been found to increase the risk of primary, open-angle glaucoma and, now, has been found to increase the risk of another type of glaucoma - exfoliation glaucoma. New studies reported in Investigative Ophthalmology & Vision Research, the scientific journal of ARVO, also link smoking to an increased risk of developing cataract. This is much like is known with the link of smoking to an increased risk of developing AMD. More work is needed here though to verify and expand these studies.

This ARVO meeting was also exciting in that the National Eye Institute continued its challenge to the vision research community to identify “Audacious Goals in Vision Research and Blindness Rehabilitation." This call generated great interest with many researchers identifying important goals for future research such as

1) finding a way to turn back the aging process in the eye (the subject of our next ORSF symposium!)

2) increased study on Regenerative Medicine (stem cells) and Optobiobics to restore vision and

3) the use of Neuroregeneration to restore functional vision through axon regeneration in patients with conditions such as traumatic optic neuropathy or glaucoma.

These and many others will be the “audacious goals” for the 2014 ARVO meeting next year in Orlando, FL. Hopefully this will all ultimately lead to preventions, treatments and cures for all ocular diseases.

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