Newswise — The National Eye Institute (NEI) awarded $25,000 to a team led by Wei Liu, Ph.D., Albert Einstein College of Medicine, for demonstrating progress toward the development of a living model of the human retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye.  The prize money was awarded for the first of two phases of the NEI 3-D Retina Organoid Challenge 2020 (3-D ROC 2020), a national initiative to generate human retina organoids from stem cells. NEI is part of the National Institutes of Health.

An estimated 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired, including 39 million who are blind. For many, vision loss results from degenerative retinal diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy. Current research efforts to understand and cure retinal diseases are hampered by the lack of tissue models that replicate the complexity and functionality of the human retina.

Publication-quality data submissions to 3-D ROC 2020 were evaluated based on innovativeness, similarity to retina morphology and function, reproducibility and quality control, and demonstrated utility to understand diseases or test therapies.

Liu’s submission demonstrated the generation of mini retinas similar in composition to the human macula, a part of the retina used for central, high-resolution vision. Specifically, the mini retinas include cone photoreceptors, the type of light-sensing retinal cell needed for color vision.

“If a true human macula can be recapitulated in a dish, that would spur development of needed therapies,” said NEI Director Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D.

Liu’s submission built upon earlier work in which his team used an enzyme to speed the formation and increase the uniformity of retina tissue. Using single cell analysis, they showed that the gene expression in their retina organoids were similar to those found in the human macula. The team is planning to model two retinal diseases, Leber congenital amaurosis and retinitis pigmentosa.

“Having an open competition to develop retinal organoids is a unique way to catalyze innovation,” Sieving said. “There’s still almost $1 million in prize money available for teams that can deliver on this challenge.”

For the second phase of 3-D ROC 2020, NEI plans to award up to $975,000 to up to three teams that demonstrate functionality of a retina organoid prototype. The competition is open to all researchers regardless of prior 3-D ROC participation. NEI encourages multidisciplinary collaborations among vision researchers, and those with expertise in stem cell research and bioengineering.

Seventeen corporate sponsors have committed to support NEI challenge participants monetarily or with expertise and in-kind resources such as discounted reagents.

For more information about 3-D ROC 2020, visit nei.nih.gov/3DROC. For details about how to apply go to https://go.usa.gov/xPMk9.

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NEI leads the federal government’s research on the visual system and eye diseases. NEI supports basic and clinical science programs to develop sight-saving treatments and address special needs of people with vision loss. For more information, visit https://www.nei.nih.gov.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit https://www.nih.gov/.

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