$3.09 million in funding for blinding eye diseases is “a real success story for the FFB”

August 14th, 2018 by Dr. Mary Sunderland

When Dr. Michel Cayouette learned the astounding news that he had been awarded $3.09 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to support his research into blinding eye diseases for the next 7 years, he happily shared the news with us at the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB).

He also explained that this success could be traced back to work that the FFB first funded in 2006: “I am ecstatic to have been successful. But I want you to know that all of this would not have been possible without the help of the FFB open operating grant program, which is made possible by unrestricted donations. This project is the continuation of our work that was first funded by the FFB in 2006, and ever since! The FFB funds allowed us to get this program up-and-running and to build a momentum of discoveries that have been instrumental in writing up a successful grant application! This is a real success story for the FFB. Now, with the stability of this funding, we are better placed than ever to take our work closer to the clinic.

We are so proud to share this story with our entire community because all the research that is funded by the FFB is made possible by the generosity of donors! Every FFB donor can feel proud to be a part of Dr. Cayouette’s stunning success!

We have shared many of Dr. Cayouette’s exciting discoveries, all of which were made possible with funding from the FFB. Since 2006, Dr. Cayouette has been studying how cell diversity arises during development of the retina. He and his team use this knowledge to learn more about why diseases happen and how developmental processes can be hijacked to develop therapies for neurodegenerative diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Over the next 7 years, Dr. Cayouette will explore the following questions:

During the development of the eye, how do specialized eye cells acquire unique identities? The eye contains many kinds of highly specialized cells—photoreceptors, for instance—each of which is important for sight. Dr. Cayouette is studying the processes involved in how each cell takes on a unique identity. The long-term goal is to be able to direct stem cells to become a specific kind of cell.

Could glial cells be reprogrammed to become photoreceptor cells? As Dr. Cayouette learns more about how retinal cells develop their identities and functions, he is also studying if cells could be coaxed into a different identity. Specifically, he is developing a process to transform retinal glial cells into photoreceptors. If he and his team are successful with this approach, the therapeutic potential would be transformative! Rather than growing photoreceptor cells and then transplanting them, this new technique would open the door to therapies that transform existing glial cells in your eye into photoreceptor cells, bypassing the need for transplantation entirely.

Many different genes cause childhood blindness, but what do these genes do? Although many different genes cause blindness in children, there are still many mysteries around how these genes lead to diseases when they malfunction.

Dr. Cayouette has a strong record of discoveries, and now, thanks to the long-term support of the FFB, he is better positioned to translate these discoveries into novel sight-saving therapies!

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