UMKC vision researchers identify pathways to boost the nervous system’s self-defense mechanisms

NIH awards five-year $1.3 million grant to Vision Research Center for innovative neuroscience research

Degeneration or acute damage of nerve cells in the brain and retina is a major cause of loss of quality of life and impairment in the United States and worldwide. Researchers at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) Vision Research Center (VRC) at Truman Medical Center have discovered some of the self-defense mechanisms these nerve cells use to try to protect themselves from diseases such as Alzheimer’s, glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetes.

The VRC was recently awarded a five-year grant of more than $1.3 million from the National Institutes of Health, Institute on Aging, for the center’s research focusing on the role of calcium in “boosting” the body’s self-defense mechanisms against age-related diseases. Peter Koulen, Ph.D., Professor and Felix and Carmen Sabates Missouri Endowed Chair in Vision Research at the UMKC School of Medicine and Director of Basic Research at the Vision Research Center, serves as principal investigator of this program.

“Under normal conditions, the self-defense mechanisms we discovered allow cells in the brain and retina to effectively communicate with their environment and to contribute to normal function,” Koulen said. “At the same time, and especially under conditions of disease and stress, they also allow cells to notice and respond to changes in the environment caused by the outside world or by genetic conditions — or a combination of both — that lead to disease and loss of function.”

Koulen pointed out that the overall goal of the research is to boost the self-defense mechanisms of nerve cells and to interfere with failing defense functions of nerve cells, thereby preventing or slowing death of nerve cells and loss of function.

“What we hope to do is uncover and identify novel therapy approaches that have the potential to be both preventative and therapeutic in nature,” he said. “This will allow the VRC to complement existing treatment designs and rationales and to develop new treatment options for age-related diseases affecting the central nervous system, brain and retina. Determining causes, mechanisms and subsequently potential treatment strategies will contribute to improving health care, health and performance requiring the nervous system.”

“The interdisciplinary structure of our Vision Research Center fosters this kind of innovative research fueling the pipeline for new therapy development in areas of great clinical need,” said Nelson R. Sabates, M.D. chair of the UMKC School of Medicine Department of Ophthalmology and director of the Vision Research Center. “This basic science research project will also provide opportunities for training UMKC students, residents and fellows and generate the basis for future translational research.”

About the Vision Research Center

The VRC, a well established collaboration among several UMKC schools and Kansas City Medical Centers, targets one goal with its interdisciplinary synergy: to better diagnose, prevent, and treat eye diseases and to make a difference in the lives of tens of millions of people through translational research and comprehensive patient care. The center’s nationally recognized excellence in research, patient care and medical education contribute to UMKC’s strengths in the life sciences.

About the UMKC School of Medicine

The UMKC School of Medicine was founded in 1971 as an innovative combined degree program. From its baccalaureate/MD curriculum to a docent system that emphasizes small group learning, the school has remained a trendsetter in medical education and research.

About the University of Missouri-Kansas City

The University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), one of four University of Missouri campuses, is a public university serving more than 14,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students. UMKC engages with the community and economy based on a four-part mission: life and health sciences; visual and performing arts; urban issues and education; and a vibrant learning and campus life experience.

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