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Programs and Research Priorities

The research projects supported by the National Eye Institute (NEI) address the leading causes of blindness and impaired vision in the United States. The NEI supports a broad range of basic and clinical research, clinical trials, epidemiologic studies, research training, and career development in the sciences related to vision.

The NEI frequently supports studies utilizing model organisms and systems that are applicable to understanding problems in human vision. In general, the NEI does not fund studies of phototropism, invertebrate light-gathering proteins, bacteriorhodopsin, or Chlamydomonas.

The goals and research priorities of each NEI program are described below, however, they are not intended to be an all-inclusive compilation of areas of interest to the NEI. Investigators are encouraged to review the NEI’s Strategic Plan and contact one of the NEI extramural Program Directors to discuss research, training, or career development plans.

 

Retinal Diseases

  • Coordinate shared bioinformatics approaches and resources to generate, analyze and annotate phenotypic and genetic data, including improved predictions of potential pathogenicity of identified sequence variants
  • Explore the role of non-Mendelian genetics, including epigenetic modifications, microRNA gene regulation, mitochondrial genetics and genetic modifier effects during development, normal aging and retinal degenerative diseases
  • Identify and better understand various treatment approaches, including prostheses, gene, drug, and molecular-based therapeutics for the treatment of retinal diseases
  • Study the disease pathogenesis and genetic factors that underlie structure, function, and the biology of retinal diseases
  • Elucidate the molecular mechanisms that lead to photoreceptor degeneration, including signal transduction pathways, defects in protein folding, ciliogenesis, functional compartmentalization, or trafficking, and translate these molecular footholds into therapies for Mendelian and complex diseases
  • Understand and model the structure, function and circuitry of retinal neurons in order to interpret tests of retinal function such as the electroretinogram and various psychophysical paradigms that are used to detect retinal diseases, monitor the progression of disease, and assess treatments
  • Study the development of the retina in order to understand what factors, signals, and cell types are necessary for a properly connected and functional retina
  • Understand the role of immune responses (including the complement system) in retinal degenerative diseases, and determine how the immune system influences survival or death of retinal neurons
  • Translate high-resolution retinal imaging technologies, like adaptive optics, into cost-effective and easy-to-use platforms for routine clinical use
  • Advance regenerative medicine and cell replacement therapy by studying key developmental regulators and pathways and explore how to direct stem cells (ES cells or iPS cells) or progenitors down specific cell lineages for targeted cell replacement therapy for all retinal cell types, including RPE
  • Translate progress in research into best clinical practices to reduce preventable blindness or reduce the functional consequences of visual impairment

Program Directors:

Dr. Thomas N. Greenwell, Retinal Neuroscience, greenwellt@mail.nih.gov
Dr. George McKie, mckiegeo@nei.nih.gov
Dr. Lisa A. Neuhold, Fundamental Retinal Processes, lneuhold@mail.nih.gov
Dr. Grace L. Shen, Retinal Diseases, ShenG@mail.nih.gov

 

Corneal Diseases

  • Investigate the various antigenic and anti-angiogenic factors and their resultant signal transduction pathways
  • Understand the role of immunity associated with transplantation and corneal graft destruction
  • Investigate methods to regenerate corneal endothelial cells and improve techniques to maintain endothelial cells
  • Increase our understanding of epithelial cell signaling in the cornea and develop strategies to improve the wound healing process
  • Characterize the normal regulation of all tissue associated with tear component formation to identify the dysfunctions occurring in dry eye disease
  • Identify the genes that contribute to the pathophysiology of all corneal disease
  • Develop high-resolution imaging techniques to diagnose and guide treatment of common corneal disorders
  • Understand keratoconus and treatment options
  • Address outcomes for the aging population of post-refractive surgery patients
Program Director:
 
Dr. George McKie, mckiegeo@nei.nih.gov

 

Lens and Cataract

  • Understand the molecular, biochemical, cellular and biophysical bases of lens transparency.
  • Identify and characterize genes that cause congenital or age-related cataract in people or laboratory animal models.
  • Unravel the non-canonical functions of lenticular proteins especially crystallins, connexins and aquaporins.
  • Investigate genes, pathways, and gene regulatory networks that drive the process of lens induction and map the mechanisms by which the lens influences other tissues of the eye, especially during development.
  • Characterize the control of lens epithelial cell proliferation by identifying cell cycle regulators, growth factors, receptors and signal transduction pathways.
  • Apply systems biology approaches to lens physiology and pathophysiology in order to uncover gene-environment interactions that may confer susceptibility or resilience to age-related cataract.
  • Determine the efficacy of non-invasive optical techniques used in lens research, such as dynamic light scattering, for potential use as a prognostic indicator in neurological diseases.
  • Study the mechanisms of lens fibrosis in order to develop effective means of preventing or treating posterior capsule opacification (PCO).
  • Dissect the basis of lens accommodation and presbyopia at the molecular and mechanistic levels.
  • Develop new approaches and potential therapeutics to prevent, delay or treat cataract
Program Director:
 
Dr. Houmam Araj, arajh@nei.nih.gov

 

Glaucoma

  • Identify the genes that contribute to the pathophysiology of all the forms of glaucoma
  • Establish a consensus definition of OAG (Open Angle Glaucoma) and standardize tools to assess its various phenotypes
  • Develop an end-point measure for OAG
  • Investigate the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in aqueous humor dynamics including the inflow and outflow pathways and the tissues comprising them
  • Explore neuroprotection as an approach for prolonging RGC function and survival.
  • Identify the specific antigenic targets of the aberrant immune response in uveitis and scleritis and determine the role of antigens derived from apoptotic cells in disease.
  • Identify genes, transcription factors, and signaling molecules involved in optic nerve degeneration/regeneration.
  • Develop experimental approaches comparing models that differ in their optic nerve regenerative capacity, such as fish versus mammals

Program Directors:

Dr. Neeraj Agarwal, agarwalnee@nei.nih.gov
Dr. Ellen Liberman, ellenliberman@nei.nih.gov
Dr. George McKie, mckiegeo@nei.nih.gov

 

Strabismus, Amblyopia, and Visual Processing

  • Improve understanding of the roles of neuronal activity and molecular events in the formation of central visual circuits during development
  • Improve understanding of cortical and subcortical circuit interactions in the processing of visual information
  • Discover the local circuit algorithms that form spatial/temporal representations and incorporate attentional or memory operations
  • Develop new neural imaging technology and methods for combining imaging and electrophysiological data in order to improve spatial and temporal resolution
  • Discover the mechanisms responsible for perceptual and motor stability during eye movements and develop strategies for using visual and oculomotor methods for diagnosing and treating visual symptoms associated with neurological disorders
  • Study genetic factors underlying the biology of diseases of the visual system
  • Develop and test pharmacological and behavioral methods for induction and improvement of plasticity in adults, as related to strabismus, amblyopia, and other disorders involving central visual processes
  • Evaluate the efficacy of potential treatments for delaying the onset or for slowing the progression of myopia, such as lenses that alter peripheral defocus, pharmaceutical approaches, or behavioral methods that harness the beneficial effects of more time outdoors

Program Directors:

Dr. Houmam Araj, Oculomotor Systems; Neuro-Ophthalmology, arajh@mail.nih.gov
Dr. Martha C. Flanders, Central Visual Processing, martha.flanders@nih.gov
Dr. Thomas N. Greenwell, Development and Regeneration of Central Visual Pathways, greenwellt@mail.nih.gov
Dr. Cheri Wiggs, Perception and Psychophysics; Myopia, wiggsc@mail.nih.gov

 

Low Vision and Blindness Rehabilitation

  • Investigate multisensory processes, cross-modal plasticity, and cortical reorganization in visually impaired individuals
  • Increase our understanding of different types of visual impairment (e.g., limited vision use) in complex or applied settings
  • Create and validate vision tests relevant for the tasks of daily living and rehabilitative goals
  • Design mobile assistive devices and navigation resources to enhance wayfinding
  • Develop new adaptive technologies to improve access to internet, print, graphic display, and educational resources
  • Characterize the level of acceptable visual enhancement using aids and prosthetics
  • Identify co-morbidities that interact with vision impairment and their influence on rehabilitation needs and outcomes
  • Develop and test visual rehabilitation models and training paradigms
Program Director:
 
Dr. Cheri Wiggs, Cheri.Wiggs@nih.gov

 

Ocular Infection, Inflammation, and Immunology

  • Investigate the mechanisms and consequences of infection by ocular pathogens including but not limited to Herpes simplex virus type 1, Adenovirus, Chlamydia trachomatis, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Acanthamoeba
  • Understand the immunologic sequelae related to ocular infection
  • Develop new drugs, vaccines and other therapeutic agents to combat ocular infections
  • Understand the role of immunity associated with transplantation and corneal graft destruction
  • Characterize the role of immune responses (including the complement system) in retinal degenerative diseases
  • Determine how the immune system influences survival or death of retinal neurons
  • Identify the specific antigenic targets of the aberrant immune response in uveitis and scleritis and determine the role of antigens derived from apoptotic cells in disease
  • Understand the causes of optic neuritis, relationship to other diseases, and treatments to improve the retention of vision
Program Director:
 
Dr. George McKie, mckiegeo@nei.nih.gov

 

Ocular Pain

  • Investigate the cornea nerves and response to pain
  • Dissect molecular, cellular, anatomical and/or neurobiological mechanisms of ocular pain and hypersensitivity
  • Elucidate the pathophysiology of ocular pain
  • Uncover neural adaptations (such as plasticity) in related ocular pathologies including dry eye disease, photophobia (photoallodynia), ocular surface itch, corneal burns, orbital pain, and ocular trauma
  • Optimize animal model studies directed at understanding eye pain
  • Develop instrumentation for diagnosing and quantifying pain
  • Investigate new approaches and therapeutics to treat and alleviate acute and chronic ocular pain
Program Director:
 
Dr. Houmam Araj, arajh@nei.nih.gov

 

Myopia

This topic span several of the scientific programs of the NEI. Research in this area has been organized into a single over-arching grant portfolio:

  • Investigate the biochemical pathways that regulate eye growth

  • Characterize the etiology of refractive errors

  • Identify the genes and environmental factors that contribute to the development refractive errors

  • Develop new technologies for assessing or treating refractive errors

Program Director:
 
Dr. Cheri Wiggs, Cheri.Wiggs@nih.gov

 

Collaborative Clinical Research

  • Test new agents, technologies and other interventions for the prevention, diagnosis, or treatment of eye diseases and/or improve vision-related quality of life
  • Conduct population-based research to describe the prevalence of eye diseases across the life span and within and among divergent demographic groups
  • Conduct studies to Identify risk factors (both biological and social) for the development, persistence, and progression of eye diseases
  • Conduct secondary data analyses utilizing existing database resources
  • Conduct system-level health services research to improve vision health and/or reduce health disparities
  • Develop new statistical methodology and tools appropriate for analyzing vision health data
  • Develop new approaches to conducting clinical research studies including those that capitalize on point-of-care and electronic medical records
  • Conduct research to develop nomenclature (e.g. common data elements) and quantitative methodologies to facilitate big data analytics
Program Directors:
 
Mr. Donald F. Everett, dfe@nei.nih.gov
Dr. Maryann Redford, maryann.redford@nei.nih.gov  
Dr. Sangeeta Bhargava bhargavas@nei.nih.gov

 

Center Core Grant Program

The NEI Center Core Grant Program (P30) provides funds for infrastructure support to NEI grantees. The purpose of this program is to afford resource and/or service cores to groups of NEI R01 investigators to enhance research activity, foster collaborations, and increase efficiencies by centralizing resources and technical expertise within a department/institution.

Key elements of the program are as follows:

  • Requires a minimum of 8 active NEI funded R01s
  • Organized around discrete units or Cores that are managed through an Administrative Core lead by the Principal Investigator
  • Combines 3 or more Resource/Service Cores each led by a Director with appropriate expertise
  • Offers shared equipment through each of the Resource Cores and serves technical expertise needs through the Service Cores
  • Encourages institutional departments to contribute to Center Core facilities
  • Provides two levels of support:
    • $2 million for 5 years of support for institutions with 8-19 R01 grants
    • $2.5 million for 5 years of support for institutions with 20 or more R01 grants
  • Limits number of Center Core grants to 1 per institution
Program Director:
 
Dr. Ellen Liberman, ellenliberman@nei.nih.gov

 

Translational Research Program (TRP) on Therapy for Visual Disorders

The NEI TRP on Therapy for Visual Disorders (R24) provides funds for the development of novel therapies and medical devices to treat and assist people with visual diseases and disorders. The objective of this program is to target new or previously identified genes, molecules, and/or pathways that are deemed to be appropriate for therapeutic intervention.  

Key elements of this program are as follows:

  • Provides resources to scientists from several disciplines to address scientific and technical questions that would be beyond the capabilities of any one research group
  • Offers opportunities for multi-disciplinary research teams to apply an integrative approach to develop rapid and efficient translation of innovative laboratory research findings into clinical therapeutic development
  • Fosters a collaborative approach particularly appropriate for research focused on pathways that will likely be targeted by biological intervention, such as gene therapy, cell-based therapy, pharmacological approaches, and the use of medical devices
  • Leads to the possible filing of an IND-directed pharmacological and toxicological study, an IDE-directed clinical study, Phase I clinical testing and a subsequent application for a R34 Clinical Study Development Grant or a NEI UG1 Clinical Vision Research Grant
Program Director:
 
Dr. Neeraj Agarwal, agarwalnee@nei.nih.gov

 

Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer Research (STTR) Programs 

The NEI SBIR (R43/R44) and STTR (R41/R42) programs provide early-stage capital for innovative small U.S. companies for the purpose of engaging in federal Research & Development (R&D) that has a strong potential for commercialization. Both the SBIR and STTR programs are divided into three phases, however, only the first two received federal funds. Phase I is the Feasibility and Proof of Concept stage, which establishes the technical merit, feasibility, and commercial potential of the proposed Research and Development (R&D) project and also determines the quality of performance of the small business.  Phase II is the Research and Development stage, which continues the R&D work initiated in Phase I and brings the project to an advanced level, approaching commercialization.  Phase III is the Commercialization stage, where the small business pursues commercialization objectives to bring the product to market with non SBIR/STTR funds.

Key elements of the SBIR and STTR programs are as follows:

  • Allows for a wide range of topics and innovative projects with strong science/technology, and high commercialization potential
  • Provides funding for three phases depending on performance:
    • Phase I Feasibility grant: 6 months and $150,000 (total costs)
    • Phase II R&D grant: 2 years and $1,000,000 (total costs)
    • Phase IIB Competing Renewal R&D grant for projects that need extraordinary time & effort in the R&D stage to develop such projects
  • Offers distinct technical assistance programs to SBIR Phase I  and Phase II awardees which include a Niche Assessment Program and a Commercialization Acceleration Program
  • Gives access to the NIH Regulatory Assistance Program which aids in the procurement of consultants knowledgeable in the Federal regulatory process necessary for the approval of new drugs and devices and helps grantees bring innovative vision and eye care products to the marketplace more efficiently
Program Director:
 
Dr. Jerome Wujek, wujekjer@nei.nih.gov

 

Conference Grants

The NEI Conference Grant Program (R13 and U13) provides funds for scientific meetings, symposia, workshops, and other organized meetings to exchange and disseminate information or explore and clarify a defined problem or area of knowledge directly related to the mission of the NEI.

Key elements of the program are as follows:

  • Requires a “permission to submit” letter application receipt date, estimated requested budget, and draft agenda for the proposed meeting
  • Places its highest priority on providing funds for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and/or newly appointed faculty members to participate in meetings
  • Prohibits costs for food/meals (NIH Policy on Efficient Spending Related to Grants Supporting Conferences and Meetings - NOT-OD-12-041), speakers' fees or expenses, and F&A
  • Strongly encourages the appropriate representation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in the planning, implementation, and participation in the proposed conference
  • Limits eligibility to domestic institutions and organizations and gives preference to meetings held at U.S. sites
  • Supports international conferences only through the U.S. representative organization of an established scientific or professional society
  • Requires that all conference materials include an acknowledgement of NIH grant support
Program Director:
 
Dr. Houmam Araj, arajh@nei.nih.gov
Last Reviewed: 
January 2017