International Retinal Research Foundation

Age-related macular



    The next submission date for IRRF regular grants is  May 15, 2019.

    Questions or request for information should be forwarded to Sandra Blackwood either by phone or email.




    Bioinformatics, “Quantifying Spatial Relationships from Whole Retinal Images,” Brian E. Ruttenberg, Gabriel Luna, Geoffrey P. Lewis, Steven K. Fisher, and Ambuj K. Singh, Neuroscience

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    The International Retinal Research Foundation, Inc.

    1720 University Boulevard

    Birmingham, Alabama 35233

    Attn: Sandra Blackwood, MPA

    Executive Director

    Phone: 205-325-8103

    Fax: 205-325-8394

    Or by email:

Submission Deadline is March 15, 2019.


RPB/IRRF Catalyst Award for Innovative Research Approaches for Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)                        (SCROLL DOWN )

In 2014, the International Retinal Research Foundation (IRRF) accepted an invitation by Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB) to participate in a funding collaboration that would combine our collective resources to that of an anonymous donor and a generous bequest received from the Sybil Harrington Estate to RPB.  It was requested that the funds be used for research that focused on stem cell research and AMD. The partnership made possible three grants at $250,000 over four years.

Realizing that there is an ongoing need for this type of funding partnership, RPB and IRRF came together again in 2017 to launch a second award, the RPB/IRRF Catalyst Award for Innovative Research Approaches for Age-Related Macular Degeneration, which provides funds to researchers who are working on novel approaches to AMD.   Macular Degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss, affecting more than 10 million Americans – more than cataracts and glaucoma combined, and at present is considered an incurable eye disease. The specific factors that cause macular degeneration are not conclusively known, and research into this little understood disease is limited by insufficient funding.  The RPB/IRRF Catalyst Awards are meant to act as seed money to high-risk/high-gain vision science research, which is innovative, cutting-edge and demonstrates out-of-the box thinking.  Research related to both dry and wet forms of AMD are supported by this award.

The $300,000 grant is payable for up to 3 years upon approval of a 14-month substantive progress report, with further funding contingent upon satisfactory progress as judged by a well- respected peer reviewer.

In December 2017, after a rigorous scientific review process rooted in RPB review committees, two Catalyst Award winners were named:

(1) Dr. Catherine Bowes Rickman of Duke University School of Medicine, Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and Associate Professor in Cell Biology, whose research interest is the pathobiology of age-related macular degeneration.  Her current studies involve the molecular mechanisms underlying the development of age-related macular degeneration, with a focus on development and studies of animal models of AMD, AMD pathogenesis and pre-clinical studies of novel therapies for AMD.  Dr. Bowes Rickman has a strong track record of productive research in this field.  For the Catalyst Award, she proposes to use unique and relevant models of chronic, dry AMD to test three therapeutic approaches that will shape strategies for targeting the complement pathway versus a combined therapeutic approach targeting both pathways.  It is felt this project could have major implications in guiding future human clinical trials in this area.

(2) Debasish Sinha, PhD, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, is Professor of Ophthalmology and the recipient of a BrightFocus grant in 2016.  Dr. Sinha also has an adjunct faculty appointment at Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins.  Dr. Sinha’s Catalyst Award proposal aims to develop a treatment for early, dry AMD that works by rejuvenating impaired lysosomal function.  (Lysosomes act as the waste disposal system of the cell by digesting unwanted materials.)  The committee felt this project is important and innovative because it attempts to target mechanisms that may underlie early stages of AMD – a critical unmet need.  Dr. Sinha has exceptional experience in inflammation and, in particular, lysosomal biology, as well as access to high-level collaborators in this area.

Collaboration with Research to Prevent Blindness has been a very positive experience and the joining of our respective resources has allowed us to extend a significant award, and we feel confident that worthy recipients have been selected.  Both IRRF and RPB are looking forward to seeing what these innovative individuals are able to accomplish with the grant money, which we hope will lead to a significant advance in AMD research.  The importance of these awards cannot be overstated, since as already stated, there is currently no known cure for this disease.  It is hoped this research will further our understanding of AMD and will lead to more options for treatment.

Collaborations That Provide Sustained Research Funding

Today’s vision scientists face many funding challenges making it imperative that all support options are available to them.  Similarly, in order to ensure continued funding for young scientists who are developing their independent research projects, the IRRF must maximize every dollar. The formation of partnerships and collaborations with outstanding institutions has made it possible to accomplish this while producing a collective impact.  Since 2013, New York-based Fight For Sight (FFS) and the IRRF have combined resources to provide an annual funding award:  FFS – The International Retinal Research Foundation Grant-in-Aid Award that is offered and administered by FFS.

2017 — John T. Pena, MD, PhD, Weill Cornell Medical College for his work in diabetic retinopathy.

Grant Title:  Human ocular fluid contains an intercellular communication system of endogenous exosomes.

Summary:   The vitreous humor of the eye is a clear gel-like structure comprised of collagen and water and fills the back of the eye.

Traditional thinking has been that the vitreous is biologically inactive.  Dr. Pena’s study showed a dense organized network of extracellular vesicles (EVs) in the human vitreous.  However, attempts to image vitreous EVs in whole mount or tissue sections resulted in no evidence of EVs.  Yet, electron microscope (EM) studies and nano-particle tracking analysis proved that millions of EVs exist in the vitreous.  To solve this discrepancy and visualize the native anatomy of vitreous EVs a hypothesis emerged that the nanometer sized EVs were lost during tissue processing secondary to reversible formalin-fixation.  Therefore, this team developed an innovative fixation technique to enable visualization of vitreous EVs in situ.  In addition to identifying the vitreous EVs, it was proven that vitreous EVs are a highly potent vector that can be loaded with synthetic siRNAs or proteins, and subsequently transfects retinal cells in vitro and in vivo.  The team has shown that vitreous EVs can be used as a vector to efficaciously deliver therapeutic recombinant proteins to tissues like the retina and choroid.

Current and Future Academic Plans: Dr. Pena’s academic plans are to continue to grow and become a productive physician-scientist.  He is currently an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medicine and Principal Investigator of the laboratory.  Dr. Pena plans to use his training from the clinic and basic sciences to ask pertinent questions that remain a challenge in vision research.  He hopes to provide straightforward solutions that can be translated to benefit his patients and will take the next few years as an opportunity to develop strong academic relationships with his mentors and students.

2018 — Jordan Greco, PhD, University of Connecticut, for his work in the characterization of an ion-mediated protein-based retinal implant.

Dr. Greco obtained his PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Connecticut in 2015.  Under the mentorship of Dr. Robert Birge, Dr. Greco’s graduate thesis work primarily involved the investigation of the structure and function of photoactive proteins, using both spectroscopic and quantum mechanical approaches.  Much of his work has contributed towards the application of the protein bacteriorhodopsin into photonic and biomimetic devices, such as protein-based optical memories and processors, photovoltaic cells, and the retinal implant developed by LambdaVision, Inc.  Concurrent with his work on bacteriorhodopsin, Dr. Greco has contributed to numerous computational analyses for the excited state of behavior of heterocyclic conjugated compounds, (e.g., porphyrin, chlorins, and corroles), carotenoids (e.g., peridinin), and other polyene-based chromophores rooted in biological systems.  Dr. Greco has presented this work to international audiences and he continues to remain active in the field via several multidisciplinary collaborations. (Reprinted from Crunchbase:

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Since joining the research group of Dr. Robert Birge in 2009, University of Connecticut, Jordan Greco has been actively involved in the research and development that has led to the creation of the protein-based retinal implant and the commercialization of this technology through LambdaVision.  (LambdaVision is led by University of Connecticut alumni and former students in Dr. Birge’s research group, Nicole Wagner, PhD and Jordan Greco, PhD.)

Dr. Greco’s graduate thesis work influenced the design and development of the retinal implant construct and the manufacturing techniques used to produce the prosthetic.  As Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Greco is responsible for manufacturing the retinal implants and establishing standard operating procedures and quality control measures.  Moreover, his research efforts helped to direct critical proof-of-concept experiments that investigated the efficacy of the retinal implant architecture.

Recently, the company’s robotic system to manufacture films that could cure blindness was brought to the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory by the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.

On Earth, it takes LambdaVision approximately five days for each of its three robotic stations to produce an implant.  The process involves a series of alternating dipping steps, which are subject to the effects of gravity.  Once complete, the process results in a membrane approximately 60 um (micrometers) thick.  A micrometer is one-millionth of a meter.

In the weightless conditions of the International Space Station, LambdaVision anticipates producing a more homogeneous and stable film. If successful, Wagner and Greco anticipate they can generate a similar signal with fewer layers of protein.  This would drastically decrease the time for manufacturing, and save on the cost of materials.



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The International Retinal Research Foundation, Inc. has been approved by the Internal Revenue Service as tax exempt

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For additional information or other inquiries, please write to:

The International Retinal Research Foundation, Inc.

1720 University Boulevard

Birmingham, Alabama 35233

Attn: Sandra Blackwood, MPA, Executive Director

Phone: 205-325-8103

Fax: 205-325-8394