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Trio of UMass Chan researchers receive awards for studies on age-related macular degeneration

By Pat Sargent

UMass Chan Medical School Communications

January 20, 2023

Three UMass Chan Medical School researchers are receiving awards from the American Macular Degeneration Foundation as part of the nonprofit’s $1.1 million investment into studies aimed at disease prevention, risk reduction, new treatments and cures for age-related macular degeneration.

Claudio Punzo, PhD

Claudio Punzo, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology & visual sciences; Johanna Seddon, MD, ScM, professor of ophthalmology & visual sciences; and Shun-Yun Cheng, PhD’22, a postdoctoral research fellow in Dr. Punzo’s lab, are among the eight recipients of an expanded round of grants from the foundation.

Punzo is the recipient of a $300,000 Research to Prevent Blindness / American Macular Degeneration Foundation Catalyst Award for Innovative Research Approaches for AMD to support his work in developing a novel, long-lasting and cost-effective treatment for patients with wet age-related macular degeneration. He is collaborating with Anastasia Khvorova, PhD, the Remondi Family Chair in Biomedical Research and professor of RNA therapeutics, on the research.

Punzo characterizes wet age-related macular degeneration as new blood vessels that break from the back of the eye toward the retina. The vessels are leaky, causing a cumulation of blood fluid in the neural retina.

The current treatment requires frequent injections—as often as once a month—of an antibody that acts as a sponge to soak up vascular endothelial growth. Punzo and Dr. Khvorova are developing a siRNA approach that stabilizes the eye for up to six months.

Johanna Seddon, MD, ScM

“The siRNA therapy we are developing is injected directly into the eye, and it diffuses to the back of the eye. By inhibiting the action of the vascular endothelial growth factor, you are basically reducing further blood vessel growth. So, if somebody has that leakage of blood in the eye, they get immediately treated,” said Punzo. “There is a very high chance that they don’t lose vision, or they don’t lose a substantial amount of vision.”

Punzo’s award is funded by the Research to Prevent Blindness and the American Macular Degeneration Foundation for Innovative Research Approaches for age-related macular degeneration.

Dr. Seddon is receiving the American Macular Degeneration Foundation Breakthrough Award extension to continue her work on new biological pathways involved in age-related macular degeneration and identifying new therapeutic targets.

Shun-Yun Cheng, PhD'22

Seddon is the founder and director of the Macular Degeneration Center of Excellence in the Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences. Seddon, who specializes in macular degeneration, discovered the link between age-related macular degeneration and the dietary intake of lutein, zeaxanthin and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as the benefit of a Mediterranean-style diet on reducing the rate of progression to advanced stages of age-related macular degeneration. 

Dr. Cheng is receiving the American Macular Degeneration Foundation Young Investigator Leadership Award to help fund her research on photoreceptors as initiators in the development of age-related macular degeneration. Cheng discovered an abnormal upregulation of cell metabolism photoreceptors of age-related macular degeneration patients. She generated an animal model by mimicking the diseased metabolic stage in a mouse. Cheng is involved in developing a potential therapy that could prevent age-related macular degeneration progression.

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