Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in the world and affects more than three million people in the United States each year. Currently, there is no cure for this crippling disease, only the option to treat one’s symptoms. Monica M. Jablonski, PhD, professor in the Department of Ophthalmology in the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), was recently awarded over $1.53 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help uncover the underlying mechanisms that cause glaucoma and develop targeted therapies to preserve retinal health in patients at risk for glaucoma.
“There are FDA-approved drugs currently on the market that target various conditions of the eye,” Dr. Jablonski said. “They do not address the genetics of glaucoma, however. Moreover, we do not have a thorough understanding of glaucoma because its genetic basis is so diverse and it represents a family of age-related disorders.”
A large body of research has shown that eye pressure, also known as intraocular pressure (IOP), is a major risk factor for optic nerve damage and loss of vision in glaucoma. Dr. Jablonski and her collaborators have recently identified a gene that modulates IOP and are using a similar approach to determine what regulates damage to the optic nerve.
“We have had recent success using a combined genetic approach and are now testing a new targeted treatment strategy for blocking IOP elevation that can lead to retinal ganglion cell death,” Dr. Jablonski said. “Our goal is to be able to define novel genes and molecular networks that underline glaucoma-associated characteristics while also providing unique glaucoma models for future analysis. The outcomes of our study are expected to fundamentally advance the field of glaucoma disease mechanisms and enable targeted therapeutic development.”
Directly linked to the successful acquirement of her NIH grant is a seed funding award created by the Vice Chancellor for Research at UTHSC, Steven R. Goodman, PhD. The preliminary data she collected with the help from her Collaborative Research Network (CORNET) Award was “key to her winning her current NIH award,” she said.
“Sometimes you need extra data to make your work something that is really cool,” said Dr. Jablonski. “My CORNET Award allowed me to take my data to the next level. UTHSC researchers are very lucky to have this level of support from our administration.”
Dr. Jablonski’s project titled, “Genetic Modulators of Glaucoma,” is being funded for four years.