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Moran Eye Center Scientists Awarded $3.8 Million for Leading-Edge Age-Related Macular Degeneration Research

Backed by $3.8 million in new federal funding, internationally renowned researchers Monika Fleckenstein, MD, and Steffen Schmitz-Valckenberg, MD, are forging new ground in age-related macular degeneration (AMD) research at the John A. Moran Eye Center.

A leading cause of severe vision loss and blindness among adults 55 and older, AMD was long regarded as a single disease. The duo’s research contributed to a new understanding of AMD as a disease spectrum.

Monika Fleckenstein, MD
Monika Fleckenstein, MD
Steffen Schmitz-Valckenberg, MD
Steffen Schmitz-Valckenberg, MD

Now, Fleckenstein and Schmitz-Valckenberg are using two National Eye Institute (NEI) grants spanning five years to better understand various subtypes on that spectrum.

“We are characterizing how different subtypes of AMD manifest and progress in patients,” explains Schmitz-Valckenberg, who directs Moran’s Utah Retinal Reading Center. “This understanding is crucial to creating new therapies tailored to each subtype and disease stage.”

One grant supports a study examining patients with a subtype of so-called "wet," or neovascular, AMD. These patients have abnormal blood vessel growth without the ruptures and leakage experienced by others. Fleckenstein and Schmitz-Valckenberg want to know if this “silent” form of vessel growth preserves vision by getting nutrition to light-sensing photoreceptor cells, saving them from death.

A second grant funds research on patients with early signs of the late "dry," or atrophic, form of AMD. This study is seeking improved measurement methods for more accurate detection and monitoring of early atrophic AMD. In theory, therapies administered in this earlier stage of atrophic AMD could save a large portion of patients from progressive vision loss.

Fleckenstein and her coworkers are examining patients participating in clinical testing for the studies, while Schmitz-Valckenberg and his team are analyzing innovative high-resolution retinal imaging and functional tests. Validation of the studies’ data will be conducted in collaboration with the University of Bonn, Germany, where the two clinician-scientists were previously affiliated before joining the faculty at Moran. 

“We couldn’t be more pleased with this NEI support and with our collaborations moving AMD research forward,” said Fleckenstein. “We know precision medicine can give hope to millions of patients who need new treatments to save vision.”

Schmitz-Valckenberg and Fleckenstein are key members of Moran’s Sharon Eccles Steele Center for Translational Medicine, which has developed a potential new gene therapy for AMD now in the FDA approval pipeline.

The NEI grants are The Impact of Non-Exudative Type 1 Macular Neovascularization on AMD Progression and Progression of Early Atrophic Lesions in AMD.