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$2.4 million to develop stem cell therapies to reverse blindness

March 4, 2009

Leading vision researchers from across Canada are embarking on a five-year, $2.4 million collaborative project to develop stem cell therapies to reverse blindness. Canada’s largest private charity for vision research, the Foundation Fighting Blindness, is partnering with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to fund the program. The research team includes seven principal scientists led by Dr. Valerie Wallace, Senior Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (the research arm of The Ottawa Hospital) and Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa.

“This project is unique because it brings the best stem cell researchers together with innovative eye surgeons and experts in biomaterials and tissue engineering,” said Dr. Wallace. “We are really focused on developing new therapies that can help the eye regenerate and restore vision.”

Stem cell therapies have the potential to benefit more than one million Canadians affected by degenerative eye diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa, age-related macular degeneration and corneal diseases; all of which cause blindness. By replacing cells that have been lost through disease or injury, stem cell therapies could potentially benefit anyone, at any stage of eye disease.

Members of the team have already made great contributions to vision research. Dr. Derek van der Kooy and Dr. Vincent Tropepe of the University of Toronto were the first to identify stem cells in the adult eye, while Dr. May Griffith of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and the University of Ottawa developed the first artificial cornea, which is currently being tested in early phase human trials. Dr. Bernard Hurley of The Ottawa Hospital and Dr. Per Fagerholm of Linköping University in Sweden are world-renowned eye surgeons. Dr. Carol Schuurmans of the University of Calgary and Dr. Wallace are both internationally recognized experts in the biology of the retina.

Together the team hopes to develop better methods for controlling stem cells, so that they can coax these cells into producing different kinds of eye cells, such as retinal and corneal cells. This is currently the greatest obstacle to successful stem cell therapies. They will also develop more efficient transplantation methods that help new eye cells integrate with existing tissue to restore lost vision. And they will work towards combining cells, genes, biomaterials and pharmaceuticals to create an improved artificial cornea.

The funding for this project from the Foundation Fighting Blindness comes from its “Sun Life Financial Virtual Centre of Vision Research Excellence”, which was established to fund exciting new Regenerative Medicine and Nanomedicine, over a five year period.

“Through this new partnership, we are bringing together top researchers at prominent research institutions and hospitals to develop therapies from the broadest knowledge base possible,” said Sharon Colle, President and CEO of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. “By sharing and applying information collectively, we can bring much needed treatments and cures to patients and families affected by blindness, as quickly as possible.”

“By partnering with agencies like the Foundation Fighting Blindness, we are able to identify and support a greater number of teams seeking to solve important health problems,” said Dr. Rémi Quirion, Scientific Director of CIHR’s Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction (INMHA), the Institute with a mandate to support vision research. “Canadian researchers are leading the way in regenerative medicine and nanomedicine and this project has the potential to make a significant impact in vision health.”

Canada’s Stem Cell Network has also played an important role in this research. In 2008, the Network and the Foundation Fighting Blindness completed a five-year research partnership which set the stage for this team, and the Network recently committed an additional $700,000 for a complementary research project, also led by Dr. Wallace.

About the Foundation Fighting Blindness
The Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) is Canada's largest private contributor of vision research, thanks to its generous donors and long-time annual fundraisers, Comic Vision and Ride for Sight. Since its inception in 1974, the FFB has funded dozens of research discoveries to identify the causes of genetic forms of blindness at universities and hospitals across Canada. Today, these discoveries have helped bring scientists to this very exciting time in vision research, translating knowledge into treatments to restore the gift of sight. To stay informed about progress in vision research, sign up for ‘e-news’ on our website: www.ffb.ca

About the Canadian Institutes of Health Research
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is the Government of Canada’s agency for health research. CIHR’s mission is to create new scientific knowledge and to enable its translation into improved health, more effective health services and products, and a strengthened Canadian health-care system. Composed of 13 Institutes, CIHR provides leadership and support to nearly 12,000 health researchers and trainees across Canada. www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca

About the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute (OHRI) is the research arm of The Ottawa Hospital and is an affiliated institute of the University of Ottawa, closely associated with the University’s Faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences. The OHRI includes more than 1,300 scientists, clinical investigators, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and staff conducting research to improve the understanding, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disease. www.ohri.ca

About the Stem Cell Network
The Stem Cell Network, established in 2001, brings together more than 80 leading scientists, clinicians, engineers, and ethicists from universities and hospitals across Canada with a mandate to investigate the immense therapeutic potential of stem cells for the treatment of diseases currently incurable by conventional approaches. Hosted by the University of Ottawa, the Stem Cell Network is one of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence funded through Industry Canada and its three granting councils. www.stemcellnetwork.ca

Media Contacts

Jennifer Paterson
Director, Communications and Public Relations
Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
613-798-5555 ext. 19691
jpaterson@ohri.ca

Tamara Petrou
Director of Communications
The Foundation Fighting Blindness
1-800-461-3331 ext. 25 / 416-360-4200
tpetrou@ffb.ca

David Coulombe
Media Relations
Canadian Institutes of Health Research
613-941-4563
David.Coulombe@irsc-cihr.gc.ca