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National Eye Institute (NEI) announces winner of research competition to develop a 3-D retina organoid

The National Eye Institute of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) have announced a winner of their ambitious competition for researchers to build a working model of the human retina from stem cells. The initiative, termed the “3-D Retina Organoid Challenge” (see seeks to “clarify the mechanisms of retinal disease, stimulate new technologies and develop more effective therapies”, representing an important component of the NEI’s Audacious Goals Initiative, aimed at restoring vision by “regenerating retinal neurons and their connections to the brain”.


The competition is understood to have received 13 submissions involving more than 50 researchers and covering a broad range of diciplines, including stem cell biology, tissue imaging and retinal vascularization. The winning entry was from Erin Lavik, Sc.D at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Dr. Lavik’s proposal intorduced a method to screen print tissue models involving the creation of layers of the various types of retinal neurons, following derivation from adult stem cells. According to the NEI, the method used by Dr. Lavik and her team allowed “the layers to be correctly oriented to mimic the structure of the human retina”. In addition to a primary award, the NEI also awarded several teams with an honourable mention.


Commenting on the achievements of each of the applicants, NEI Director Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D. stated, “[t]he diversity of disciplines within each team is impressive and their concept proposals showcase the creativity that occurs when vision researchers collaborate with experts from other fields. We intend for these concepts to push the development of retinal organoids. If developed, these next-generation human retina models would be invaluable resources for researchers in academia and industry.”


The NEI is offering a $1 million prize to spur innovation in the field, and to encourage research groups to develop model systems that mimic human physiology as closely as possible. Applications were invited from individuals and teams, researchers and clinical trainees, undergraduates and medical students, with the caveat that the lead for each application must be a US resident. The competition is broken into an “Ideas” stage and a “Development” stage, which will need to demonstrate a functioning retina organoid prototype. Entries were evaluated by non-federal technical experts skilled in the field and looking for solutions that:

  • Are generated from human cells (derived from iPSC, federally approved ESC, multipotent cells, or adult cells subjected to a combination of transdifferentiation/reprogramming methods);
  • Are physiologically and morphologically relevant to normal or disease state; and
  • Consist of the major retina cell types and represent their biological functions and interplay.


According to a press release from NEI, 4.2 million citizens over the age of 40y are visually impaired or blind, with numbers expected to double within approximately 30 years. The estimated annual economic burden of these disorders exceeds $35 billion, putting enormous pressure on healthcare budgets, most especially in the context of an aging population and a soaring diabetic population.