The National Eye Institute of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched an 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 www.nei.nih.gov/3droc) seeks to “clarify the mechanisms of retinal disease, stimulate new technologies and develop more effective therapies”. The project is a component of the NEI’s Audacious Goals Initiative, aimed at restoring vision by “regenerating retinal neurons and their connections to the brain”.
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 are 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 completion is broken into an “Ideas” stage and a “Development” stage, which will need to demonstrate a functioning retina organoid prototype. Entries will be evaluated by non-federal technical experts skilled in the field and who will be 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. Consequently, an urgency exists in tackling a growing problem expected to impact almost every family in the US.
Commenting on the launch of the competition, NEI Director Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D., stated, “none of the model systems currently available to researchers match the complex architecture and functionality of the human retina. We are looking for new ideas to create standardized, reproducible 3-D retina organoids that can speed the discovery of treatments for diseases such as age-related macular degeneration and diabetic eye disease, both leading causes of blindness.”