Dr. Nils Loewen
Dr. Nils Loewen

The Initiative to Cure Glaucoma - Enormous strides have been made in utilizing stem cells from the trabecular meshwork (TM) of the eye to alleviate the effects of, and potentially cure, glaucoma. Initially supported through a large grant from an anonymous donor, most of this work was spearheaded by Dr. Yiqin Du, who soon became the first ever researcher to publish on techniques related to isolating and growing TM stem cells. Later, Dr. Du followed up on this success by creating an animal model where TM stem cells actually restored lost function of the TM – in other words, she cured glaucoma in mice.

Dr. Nils Loewen, a highly trained glaucoma surgeon and Chief of the Ophthalmology Department’s Glaucoma and Cataract Service, is one of only a small number of surgeons in the world who can perform a special kind of glaucoma procedure that removes part of the trabecular meshwork in order to relieve pressure. Dr. Loewen's research investigates novel ways to completely remove and then rebuild a healthy TM, using a gene therapeutic vectors and techniques from bioengineering and tissue regeneration. Specifically, Dr. Loewen is researching ways to reverse engineer the TM to preserve proper function.

Together, these two world-class researchers, in conjunction with the Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology, Dr. Joel S. Schuman, a leader in glaucoma research and treatment, will partner with the Eye & Ear Foundation as we begin a campaign to develop the Center to Cure Glaucoma.

The Center will be built around three bold strategies to address the problem of glaucoma:

1. The first goal will involve Dr. Loewen teaming up with Dr. Joseph Glorioso, a professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, to develop a gene therapy vector that would specifically remove the diseased tissue from the TM that is responsible for increased eye pressure and can thus address the cause of glaucoma. Already, this team has produced unique models that have demonstrated success in small experiments that are now ready to be scaled up to larger, more complex scenarios.

2. This will lead to the second strategy, using Dr. Du’s TM stem cells to rebuild the damaged or removed TM tissue, by relying on the inherent self-regenerative ability of stem cell treatments and therapies. This effort would reduce the pressure caused by glaucoma and a malfunctioning outflow tract, thereby preventing damage to the optic nerve, or otherwise halting vision loss as a result of the disease.

3.  Finally, Dr. Loewen will then partner with Dr. Schuman, and Dr. Lawrence Kagemann, to determine what is responsible for continued outflow resistance following surgical removal of TM segments. Determining the cause of this peculiar residual resistance that is there despite the absence of the TM that is responsible for outflow resistance will allow to quickly develop entirely new drug categories and therapies.

“Our department and vision research community has an excellent track record of successfully implementing efforts like the Center to Cure Glaucoma, such as the Charles and Louella Snyder Laboratory for Retinal Regeneration,” states Dr. Loewen, “we believe this strategic plan really brings us within striking distance of something no one has yet accomplished – a cure for the high pressure seen in most forms of glaucoma.”

The Center to Cure Glaucoma is a very bold and dynamic effort in the fight against glaucoma and vision loss. We look forward with great anticipation to the benefit it can bring our patients.