NIH Offers Prize for Most Lifelike Retina Model

Thomas Castles

$1 million is up for grabs

$1 million in prize money is available to anyone who can create the most true-to-form miniature, lab-grown human retina in a petri dish, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

It’s all part of the 3-D Retina Organoid Challenge, an NIH federal prize competition that was initiated to build a model that could help physicians better understand and treat diseases of the retina.

Research models are more valuable the more closely they mimic human tissue, according to an NEI statement. However, none of the model systems currently available to researchers match the complex architecture and functionality of the human eye.

“There are several people who are currently working on this,” said Jessica Mazerik, PhD, NEI challenge coordinator. “They have good protocols, but we really want to push it further. We want to bring in people from other scientific disciplines, like bioengineers, 3-D bioprinting, material scientists, developmental biologists, anyone who can bring in unique expertise and give novel ideas to push these things to the next level.”

Researchers hope to use retina organoids to study how retinal cells interact under healthy and diseased conditions, and to test potential therapies. According to Paul A. Sieving, MD, PhD, director of the NEI, there is huge potential for the right innovators to make big strides in ophthalmology.

“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,” he said.

The initial stage of the competition, called the ideation stage, aims to generate innovative ideas that can later be turned into concrete steps. It runs until August 1, 2017.

“The first part will award $100,000 for up to three winners. We’re asking for ideas to improve protocols or incorporate new technologies to really make these mini retinas as close as they can be to functional human retinas,” Mazerik said.

The second stage, called the developmental stage, will require demonstration of a functional retina organoid prototype. This stage is planned to launch in fall 2017 and expected to offer $1 million in prize money.

So far, nine sponsors have joined the challenge to support solvers through grants, access to expertise, and discounted reagents, and in-kind testing. They include Genentech, XCell Science, The Assocation for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, Millipore Sigma, Neuromics, RUCDR Infinite Biologics, Precision Nanosystems, SBI, and Shenandoah Biotechnology.

Currently, more than 4.2 million people over age 40 in the US are visually impaired or blind, and that number is expected to double by the year 2050, according to the NIH. Major visual disorders among Americans have an estimated annual economic burden of more than $35.4 billion.