A Research ‘Moonshot’ to Restore Vision in People with T1D


Restoring Vision Workshop

JDRF and The Mary Tyler Moore & S. Robert Levine, MD Charitable Foundation have begun an ambitious initiative aimed at restoring vision in people with significant visual loss due to type 1 diabetes (T1D) and transforming the scientific understanding of diabetes-related eye disease.

The launch of “Restoring Vision: A JDRF Moonshot Initiative” brings together more than 50 global experts in diabetes-related eye diseases and related disciplines, including physicians, engineers, cell biologists and technology experts — all with the goal of developing a research plan and taking necessary actions to create the means to reverse low vision and cure blindness in people with diabetes.

The initiative honors the enduring legacy of Mary Tyler Moore, her life with T1D, and her commitment to cure the disease and its complications. As the International Chairman of JDRF from 1984 until her death in 2017, Mary helped raise billions of dollars for research to remove the impact of T1D from people’s lives. As she worked to remove the burden of T1D for others, the disease impacted her own life, resulting in near-blindness as her T1D progressed.

Diabetes-related eye disease, including diabetic retinopathy, is the leading cause of blindness in working-age adults. Current research focuses on new treatments and prevention. The Restoring Vision initiative seeks nothing less than transformative scientific breakthroughs to restore vision in people who have lost much or all of their sight.

Even with the best care, 35 percent of people with T1D develop eye disease. Current treatments include the use of steroids, laser photocoagulation and intravitreal injected drugs called Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor antagonists, or anti-VEGF. While these interventions have helped many people with T1D, they have limitations, including that they only focus on preventing the progression of eye disease. Laser therapy can burn or destroy part of the retina and result in impaired peripheral, night and color vision—a complication which sadly limited Mary Tyler Moore’s vision and mobility for a significant part of her later life, stealing her independence. Despite this vision and life-limiting side effect of laser therapy, two-thirds of patients, globally, with proliferative retinopathy, will receive this intervention. Additionally, anti-VEGF therapy requires up to monthly intra-ocular injections, and half of people treated do not fully respond to anti-VEGF.

Right now, no treatment exists to reverse the damage to the retina caused by diabetic retinopathy (and its treatment) and restore the vision that has been lost as a result. At the scientific workshop which kicked off the initiative on January 30, researchers — including innovators in regeneration science and medical technology — began developing concepts for a research investment and facilitation plan, with clear “moonshot” goals and milestones to be led by JDRF. Workshop speaker Dr. Jennifer Sun, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, stressed that the number of people with vision-threatening diabetic retinopathy continues to grow — and is currently equivalent to the population of Florida.

Researchers at the workshop outlined the need for regenerative approaches such as gene editing and cell or tissue replacement, new assistive technology such as retinal prostheses, and a spectrum of potential electrical and chemical engineering solutions to address cell dysfunction. Researchers also emphasized the need to create a mechanism that translates breakthroughs into clinical care.

The discussion was led by members of JDRF’s research team and included scientists from academia, nonprofits, government, and the pharmaceutical and technology industries. Industry representatives came from the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Participants included Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, Case Western Reserve University, Eberhard Karls University Tübingen, Foundation Fighting Blindness, Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology, Genentech/Roche, Google Research, Harvard Medical School, IBM Research, Jaeb Center for Health Research, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, McGill University, National Eye Institute/National Institutes of Health, New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute, PolyPhotonix, Research to Prevent Blindness, The Ohio State University, University College London Institute of Ophthalmology, University of Florida Diabetes Institute, University of Iowa, University of Maryland, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Verily and Zebra Biologics.

The research initiative is co-chaired by Dr. S. Robert Levine, president, The Mary Tyler Moore & S. Robert Levine, MD Charitable Foundation and Dr. Mark Atkinson, director, University of Florida Diabetes Institute and chairman, JDRF Research Advisory Committee. The workshop was chaired by Dr. Thomas Gardner, professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, University of Michigan Medical School.

Together with government, NGO and commercial partners, JDRF will develop avenues to support future research and development and an executable roadmap toward new therapies. Roadmap objectives may include:

  1. Delineation of key factors leading to visual loss in T1D
  2. Landscape analysis of current state-of-the-art approaches in development to restore vision
  3. Learnings from next-generational approaches in development in other disease areas
  4. Identification of new approaches with the potential to restore vision by reversing diabetes-related eye disease from advanced, progressive stages
  5. A prioritized list of approaches based on potential impact and feasibility

Mary Tyler Moore’s legacy will continue to inspire and drive JDRF and the innovative scientists working to cure blindness through this initiative, as we continue to work toward a world without T1D.