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Supporting sight-saving research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Lions Eye Bank of Wisconsin (LEBW) Gift of Sight Discovery Fund was created in 2015, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, to promote innovative research to better understand and treat blinding diseases. Department researchers are encouraged to apply annually for $50,000 grants from the fund. Colleen McDowell, PhD, assistant professor, and Ismail Zaitoun, PhD, associate scientist, are the 2019 awardees.


Colleen McDowell looking through a microscope in a labDr. McDowell’s project focuses on glaucoma, a blinding disease characterized by damage to the optic nerve. One of the major risk factors in the development of glaucoma is an increased pressure inside the eye. The increase of pressure occurs when fluid does not properly drain through the drainage structures in the front of the eye. “Our project aims to understand what regulates the arrangement and construction of the drainage structures and how changes in this makeup prevent proper drainage in the eye. Understanding the molecular mechanisms that effect glaucomatous damage is essential to the identification of therapeutic targets that will help prevent disease progression,” Dr. McDowell explains. The data from this research project can be used to advance further studies that can be tested in human clinical trials. The ultimate goal is to develop disease modifying therapeutics that will stop, and even prevent, the development of glaucoma.

Ismail Zaitoun standing next to a computer monitorDr. Zaitoun’s project concentrates on scar formation related to wet form (neovascular form) age-related macular degeneration (nAMD). Age-related macular degeneration occurs when the macula, a small portion of the retina at the back of the eye, deteriorates. nAMD is characterized by the growth of abnormal blood vessels underneath the retina and macula. Macular scar formation is one unfavorable outcome of the abnormal growth of these new blood vessels. Unfortunately, there are limited therapies available for prevention of scar formation, and many patients with nAMD do not respond to the current therapy. “We know very little about how these scars forms. We have recently become interested in this clinical problem and started collecting some encouraging results regarding the underlying mechanisms. We are very grateful for the funding of the Lions Eye Bank of Wisconsin,” said Dr. Zaitoun, “This will allow us to establish critical tools that are essential for exploring the underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms responsible for scar formation in nAMD.” Dr. Zaitoun’s team proposes that a protein called GLI1 is responsible for driving scar formation and that its negation may have therapeutic benefit for nAMD patients.


Past recipients of the LEBW Gift of Sight Discovery Fund include:

Yao Liu, MD
Stuart Thompson, PhD

Paul Kaufman, MD
Kim Stepien, MD; Mihai Mititelu, MD, MPH; Melanie Schmitt, MD

Neal Barney, MD
Curtis Brandt, PhD

Gillian McLellan, PhD, BVMS
Robert Nickells, PhD


To learn more about the research at the UW Department of Ophthalmology, visit eyes.wisc.edu/research.