Glaucoma is a leading cause of irreversible blindness in the United States and globally. Currently, there is no cure for the disease, and once vision is lost, it cannot be regained.
However, Robert. W. Williams, PhD, chair of the Department of Genetics, Genomics and Informatics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), has received a Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB) Stein Innovation Award totaling $300,000 for research into molecular activity in the retina that initiates glaucoma. His goal is to understand the first targets of the disease — the cells most susceptible to the disease — and help devise new prevention and therapy.
At the present time, treatment focuses on reducing pressure in the eye that can trigger glaucoma, rather than addressing the disease at a cellular level. Most often, by the time patients seek treatment, vision is already altered.
Working with mouse models, Dr. Williams aims to identify the cells connecting the eye to the brain (retinal ganglion cells) that are most susceptible to high pressure in the eye that results in their death, and over time, in blindness. Once these cells are identified through cutting-edge, single-cell analysis, the next step would be to develop targeted treatments to make them more resistant to damage from pressure.
“The hope is that this will give us a way to rationally target interventions to help out those cells that are most likely to be damaged by intraocular pressure,” Dr. Williams said. “So that if a patient comes in and we learn enough about the patient to say you’re glaucoma prone because your mother and father had glaucoma, and your brother had it, and we looked at your DNA and you have high-risk genes, now we would know enough from our experimental work that we would be in a position to intervene.” Intervention before actual damage to the eye could be as simple as an environmental, dietary or drug treatment, he said.
“What we’d like to do is strengthen the ganglion cells to make them so strong that even if there is increased pressure in the eye, they don’t go into a tailspin,” Dr. Williams said.
The UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair in Computational Genomics, Dr. Williams was nominated by the UTHSC Department of Ophthalmology for the prestigious award that will be delivered in two installments over a three-year period. The award provides funding to basic scientists actively engaged in research in collaboration with a department of ophthalmology with the goal of understanding the visual system and the diseases that affect its function. New technologies and cutting-edge research that apply to blindness, but are developed outside a department of ophthalmology, are supported through this award.
“Dr. Rob Williams is a brilliant scientist and a leader in genomics and bioinformatics,” said Barrett Haik, MD, FACS, Hamilton Professor of Ophthalmology and director of the Hamilton Eye Institute at UTHSC. “His research into the cellular and genomic processes involved in glaucomatous tissue damage has the potential to answer crucial questions that could revolutionize the way millions of glaucoma patients are treated. He is one of only four remarkable individuals to receive the Stein Innovation Award, the largest source of flexible funding available to bring new ideas into vision science.”
Dr. Williams said he is grateful to receive the award. “I have a long history in vision research,” he said. “I tend to do more genetics now in a broad context. But this grant brings me back to my core area of expertise.”
RPB is the world’s leading voluntary organization supporting eye research. Since it was founded in 1960, RPB has channeled hundreds of millions of dollars to medical institutions for research into the causes, treatment and prevention of blinding eye diseases. For information on RPB, and RPB-funded research, eye disorders, and its grants program, go to https://www.rpbusa.org.