NIH Launches Competition to Develop Human Eye Tissue in a Dish

3-D Retina Organoid Challenge to spur breakthroughs in treating blinding diseases.

blinding diseases
3-D Retina Organoid Challenge to spur breakthroughs to treat blinding eye diseases.

The National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, has opened the first stage of a federal prize competition designed to generate miniature, lab-grown human retinas. The retina is the light- sensitive tissue in the back of the eye. Over the next three years pending availability of funds, NEI plans to offer more than $1 million in prize money to spur development of human retina organoids.

“None of the model systems currently available to researchers match the complex architecture and functionality of the human retina,” said NEI Director Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D. “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.”

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

Research models are more valuable the more closely they mimic human tissue. Researchers hope to use retina organoids to study how retinal cells interact under healthy and diseased conditions, and to test potential therapies.

Stage I: Ideas

The ideation stage of the 3-D Retina Organoid Challenge aims to generate innovative ideas that can later be turned into concrete concepts. Running until August 1, 2017, the total prize purse for the ideation stage is $100,000.

“We’re looking for creative insights and application of new technology to unleash the full potential of retinal organoids. Our goal is for researchers to be able to generate or obtain retinal organoids easily so that they can be widely used for understanding diseases and testing drugs,” explained Jessica Mazerik, Ph.D., NEI challenge coordinator. “To do this, we are encouraging entries from diverse teams of participants.” They may come from vision research, developmental and stem cell biology, tissue engineering, materials science, 3-D bioprinting, and other fields.

Stage I also has a special solver category exclusively for trainees, which includes graduate and undergraduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and medical students. NEI has launched a discussion forum as a teambuilding space.

So far, nine sponsors have joined the challenge to support solvers through grants, access to expertise and discounted reagents, and in-kind testing.

Proposed Stage II: Development

The development stage of the challenge 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.

Full details of the 3-D Retina Organoid Challenge prize competition are available at  https://nei.nih.gov/3DROC.