The US Department of Defense (DoD) has awarded Weill Cornell Medicine a $1.27 million grant to develop a treatment for a rare but deadly eye disease that mostly affects military members who have suffered traumatic eye injuries in combat.
Over the course of the three-year grant, investigators will examine the safety and efficacy of two newly discovered antibodies to treat proliferative vitreoretinopathy, or PVR.
Currently not treatable or preventable, PVR occurs when cells inside the eye gather together into a scar-like ball following a penetrating eye injury.
“This is a potentially blinding disease and it's definitely worth trying to preserve vision, especially in people defending our country and in patients with other predisposing eye disorders,” said Dr. Katherine Hajjar, lead investigator, the Brine Family Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology and a professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine.
PVR is caused by a penetrating wound to the eye, which affects about 200,000 people worldwide each year. It can also happen to people who have had complex eye procedures or a detached retina.
With the increased usage of explosive weapons in modern conflict, the condition has become more common among military personnel, and it affects approximately half of individuals who survive a penetrating eye wound.
Dr. Hajjar's previous discoveries, which were also financed by the Department of Defense, revealed that mice who lacked the gene for a protein called annexin A2, a protein that allows retinal cells to bunch up in response to damage, were protected from developing PVR.
Also using animal models, her team will now determine whether injecting A2-blocking antibodies into a damaged eye will prevent PVR.
The antibodies were created by the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute (TDI), a collaboration between Weill Cornell Medicine, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and The Rockefeller University that aims to accelerate the translation of early-stage small molecule and antibody drug discovery into new treatments for patients.
Other key collaborators and consultants include Weill Cornell research associates Drs. Min "Lucy" Luo and Valentina Dallacasagrande, lab supervisor Dena Almeida, professor and chair of ophthalmology Dr. Donald D'Amico and ophthalmologist Dr. Szilard Kiss.
"It has been a really interesting partnership with the TDI because they're experts in making and characterizing the humanized antibodies we're using to make sure they're indeed reacting with the right protein in the right way," said Dr. Hajjar, who is also senior associate dean for faculty at Weill Cornell Medicine. "If we find one that works well, we hope it can quickly be transferred to humans, so that would dramatically shorten the drug development time."
Dr. Hajjar hopes to collaborate with a pharmaceutical or biotech business to conduct human clinical trials within five years if the attempt succeeds. The PVR treatment might be injected into a patient's eye quickly after a traumatic eye injury in the real world.