OHSU Researchers Win $1.8 Million Award To Study Families with Age-Related Macular Degeneration

04/13/99    Portland, Ore.

The knowledge medical researchers learned from one family about a blinding eye disease they hope to expand with others. Oregon Health Sciences University's Casey Eye Institute researchers are seeking families affected by age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in the United States.

A team of scientists, led by Michael Klein, M.D., professor of ophthalmology, discovered the location of a gene that caused age-related macular degeneration in 10 members of one family. The group published its discovery in the August 1998 Archives of Ophthalmology.

Scientists have long known that age-related macular degeneration tends to run in families. However, this was the first published work to identify a specific genetic region linked to macular degeneration in a large family with the disease.

Now that they know the region, they hope to find the exact location of the gene. "If you can find the specific gene that causes the disease in this family, you can find out what's wrong and perhaps correct it," said Klein. The next step is to study other large families with the disease to determine whether they have the same errant gene or different ones.

The National Institutes of Health recently awarded the Casey Eye Institute $1.8 million over five years to help support this research, along with local foundations and individuals. Until recently, the Casey group's work had been funded primarily through the George and Carolyn Goodall Foundation, the Joseph E. Paquet Fund, the Frances and Monroe Jubitz Fund and the Macular Degeneration Center Fund.

Millions of Americans suffer from a gradual fading-out of central vision known as age-related macular degeneration. About 7 percent of Americans older than 75 have progressed to the late stage of the disease. The loss of vision comes from deterioration of a part of the retina called the macula. There is no way to prevent the disease, and the only effective treatment, laser photocoagulation, succeeds in only a small number of people. However, if other families with the disease share the same genetic defect, medical researchers may be able to screen people who are at risk and offer advice about prevention, such as quitting smoking.

Other members of the team include Dennis Schultz, Ph.D., Ted Acott, Ph.D., Mary Wirtz, Ph.D. and Richard Weleber, M.D. The Oregon researchers collaborate with scientists at the Laboratory for Statistical Genetics at Rockefeller University in New York.

The research team at the Casey Eye Institute would like to hear from families with age-related macular degeneration. Families with four or more living relatives who have the disease should call (503) 494-3064. Family members do not have to live in Oregon.