OHSU School of Medicine's Casey Eye Institute Receives $2.6 Million to Study Glaucoma

01/29/04    Portland, Ore.

Grant is in collaboration with Greek medical school

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine's Casey Eye Institute have received a grant from the National Eye Institute- of the National Institutes of Health, to study the genetic causes of glaucoma in conjunction with the University of Ioannina in rural northwestern Greece.

The five-year $2.6 million dollar grant will continue to fund the research of Mary Wirtz, Ph.D., associate professor of ophthalmology, and molecular and medical genetics in the OHSU School of Medicine, Casey Eye Institute, and her colleague John Samples, M.D., professor of ophthalmology in the School of Medicine, Casey Eye Institute. Wirtz has been studying the genetic causes of glaucoma, and has discovered two genes associated with the disease.

After reading about one of Wirtz's glaucoma gene discoveries, Michael Petersen, M.D., Ph.D., a geneticist from Athens, contacted her, interested in collaborating. Petersen had been working with George Kitsos, M.D., from the University of Ioannina. Kitsos had evaluated a number of large families in Greece with glaucoma. The glaucoma gene in one of these families mapped to the same region of the eye that Wirtz had discovered in an Oregon family. A unique partnership between the two institutions ensued. Wirtz and Samples have been to Greece and, with this grant, will return to work more closely with Kitsos and Petersen to identify the gene responsible for glaucoma in these families.

"Our goal is to ultimately identify the gene that causes glaucoma," said Wirtz. "By identifying the bad genes, we can gain insight into the causes of glaucoma and discover better treatments for the disease."

This grant will allow the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Ioannina to purchase a new Humphrey visual field machine. This instrument is critical in evaluating the extent of damage in glaucoma patients. With this machine, Kitsos will be able to document the severity of the disease and its progression in family members participating in this study. Part of the grant money will also go toward a new centrifuge for Petersen's lab at the Child Institute of Health in Athens, which will allow for better quality DNA to be isolated from the blood of participating family members. The DNA will then be shipped to Wirtz's lab for work leading to the identification of the glaucoma gene.

There is no clear understanding of what causes glaucoma. It is the leading cause of blindness, affecting 2 million to 3 million people in the United States and more than 66 million people worldwide. Several treatments exist, and if the disease is caught early, serious vision loss can be delayed, but none of the options stop the disease completely.