The National Institutes of Health have launched a competition to award a federal prize of $1 million for a bidder that can successfully replicate production of fully functioning eye tissue.
“What we really want from this competition is a better way to understand human retina disease and also learn about drugs that could potentially be worked for those diseases,” said Jessica Mazerik, who holds a doctorate of philosophy in cell biology and is the competition coordinator at NIH’s National Eye Institute (NEI).
Contestants are aiming to grow a fully functioning eye retina in a specimen dish. Researchers, biotechnology companies and pharmaceutical companies could then use the end product to research eye diseases and test potential treatments.
“We think we’re right on the cusp of being able to replicate the human light sensitivity of a human retina,” said Steve Becker, a colleague of Mazerik’s at NEI, who also has a doctorate of philosophy (PhD) in cell biology.
According to Becker, researchers are able to regenerate eye tissues just short of full functionality. He said he hopes the end product would be readily available in order to be frozen and thawed at any time for future use.
“Another use far into the future, would be to use the tissue from these mini-retinas as a source for transplants,” Mazerik said.
Tissue replicas provide more accurate results over modeling and animal testing, Mazerik said.
“This will give scientists a way to study actual human tissue in a very relevant system in a dish before moving on to animal models,” said Mazerik.
The first stage of the competition, which is ongoing, solicits ideas from the public and private sectors. The second stage scheduled for the fall will include demonstrations of tissue growth.
“Competitions lend themselves to catalyze emerging fields of technology and biology,” said Becker. “It allows anyone to participate and we wanted to bring in researchers from related fields.”
Becker said the competition includes researchers from biotechnology, engineering, materials science and other fields outside medicine.
“It brings in the fields that have creative techniques and the innovation that could be harnessed to a new problem that perhaps they hadn’t considered,” Becker said. “The traditional grant mechanisms haven’t really brought in those mechanisms,” he added.
“When you put it out as a competition it really starts to get people’s attention,” Becker said.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates approximately 14 million Americans older than age 12 are visually impaired.
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, entire eye transplants are not medically possible, however, current advances allow for tissue and cornea to be easily transplanted from grown or artificial sources.
According to NEI, eight biotechnology corporations and one research associations are sponsoring the competition.