USC Launches Center for Neuronal Longevity to Address Vision Loss and Neurodegenerative Diseases

USC Launches Center for Neuronal Longevity to Address Vision Loss and Neurodegenerative Diseases

February 01, 2022

Could a new paradigm in digital health treat blinding disorders and possibly also be a conduit for treating other parts of the brain? A multi-disciplinary team of world-renowned researchers at the University of Southern California are exploring this exciting possibility.

According to a news release from the USC, Drs. Mark Humayun, Gianluca Lazzi, and Arthur Toga have teamed up to lead a new center (Center for Neuronal Longevity; CNL) to address the challenges of neurodegenerative eye and brain diseases.

The center is a cross-campus, multi-school venture that brings together the Keck School of Medicine, Viterbi School of Engineering, and the School of Pharmacy.

Housed in the USC Ginsburg Institute for Biomedical Therapeutics led by Humayun, the USC Institute for Technology and Medical Systems led by Lazzi, and the USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute led by Toga, aims to further USC's commitment to diversity and inclusion as well as workforce development through training, education, and outreach programs.

CNL is also focusing on building strong relationships with industry leaders in order to help accelerate the development and translation of revolutionary technologies into the clinic.

Twenty/Twenty Therapeutics (a joint venture between Santen and Verily) is an example of an important industrial cooperation focused on digital eyecare.

Sharing this enthusiasm Dr Dimitri Azar, CEO of Twenty/Twenty Therapeutics said: "We are gratified to be an industrial partner of the USC Center for Neuronal Longevity led by Dr. Mark Humayun. Mark has been a leader in vision restoration, and we plan to collaborate with this exciting new center to develop novel therapies for patients who are experiencing vision problems."

While neurodegenerative diseases of the brain and peripheral nervous system are complex, they always result from the death or malfunction of nerve cells.

Some neurodegenerative conditions can be slowed using currently known therapies, but none of them can prevent, stop, or reverse the damage, and many other diseases cannot even be slowed down.

The USC researchers are using a ground-breaking strategy to provide electromagnetic stimulation through a contact lens-like platform to slow, stop, or even reverse nerve cell destruction in the eye.

Surface stimulation of the eye has been shown in preclinical trials to halt the progression of blindness. While the researchers' current focus is on the eye, their long-term goal is to use the same technology to treat neurodegenerative brain conditions like Alzheimer's disease.

“The Center for Neuronal Longevity will deepen our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases – and trans form the way we treat them,” said USC President Carlo L. Folt.

“By combining the work of three USC schools, interdisciplinary researchers will come together and explore new therapies that use cutting-edge technologies – and draw on those already being used to unravel the workings of the eye and brain. We are incredibly excited to see the medical breakthroughs that will give new hope to people everywhere.”

The current work builds on Humayun and Lazzi's previous efforts to develop retinal implants for patients with near-total blindness. Rather than trying to prevent the loss of neurons, those devices employ electrical stimulation to bypass damaged neurons.

When these efforts are combined with Toga's imaging and connectomics work at the USC Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, a unique research opportunity emerges.

Former President Barack Obama awarded Humayun the National Medal of Technology and Achievement, the nation's highest honor for technological innovation, in 2016 for his work to restore vision in blind people.

“Leveraging USC’s world-class expertise in ophthalmology, bioelectronics, neuroimaging, molecular biology, and outstanding existing infrastructure, we are now building on our retinal implant success and developing the science, medicine, and engineering behind what we think has the potential to be leapfrog digital health technology for prevention or slowing down neurodegenerative diseases,” said Humayun, who is Director of USC Institute for Biomedical Therapeutics and Co-director of the USC Roski Eye Institute.