Fighting blindness with a competition that rewards the most innovative ideas for the construction of functioning human retina prototypes. That’s what the National Eye Institute (NEI) 3-D Retina Organoid Challenge (NEI 3-D ROC 2020), a million-dollar prize competition designed to generate lab-grown human retinas from stem cells, is doing. Organoids developed for competition will mimic the structure, organization and function of the human retina and also the photosensitive tissue in the back of the eye. An initiative that aims to accelerate the discovery of new treatments for the 285 million people with a visual disability, of which 39 million are blind.
Why research is important
In many cases, blindness and decreased vision are the result of diseases that damage the retina which, if better understood, could be treated or require interventions to stop degeneration or provide protection for the remaining vital cells. One limitation in promoting retinal research is that ocular tissue is not readily available to study disease processes and test new therapies. However, retinal biology researchers have developed methods for growing 3-D retinal models in vitro from induced pluripotent stem cells and human embryonic stem cells. Various experiments are underway but so far none can replicate the complexity and functionality of the human retina.
The goal of the ‘race’
Thus, attempts to understand and treat vision-impairing retinal diseases such as age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy are limited by the lack of tissue patterns. The “mini-retinas” developed as part of this competition would replicate the complexity and functionality of the human retina and serve as a platform for studying the underlying causes of retinal diseases, testing new drug therapies, and providing a source of cells for transplantation. A retinal organoid is similar to a human retina, but is grown in the laboratory from stem cells. Scientists can use retinal organoids to study eye diseases and treatments.
The three phases of the competition
In the first edition of 3-D ROC 2017 (awarding the idea) $ 90,000 was awarded to a researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for his concept of screen printing layered retinal neurons that mimic the structure of the human retina. The second edition of the competition required the generation of prototype 3-D organoids and the demonstration that they function as disease models or drug screening tools. “Unfortunately, due to the pandemic there have been delays and for this reason we have decided to extend the challenge to a third phase with a final deadline of 1 June 2022”, he explains Steven Becker, associate director of the National Eye Institute. With this new phase the idea is to leverage advances in bioengineering, stem cell technology, microfluidics, bioprinting and other fields to generate 3-D systems that help identify new treatments by developing personalized therapies for patients.
All research teams wishing to participate can register by October 2021 by submitting an abstract, preliminary data and a list of team members. The results will then be presented in June 2022.