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Video Spotlight: David Calkins, PhD

David J. Calkins, PhD, Director of Research, Vanderbilt Eye Institute, Nashville, TN

The Calkins lab focuses on the mechanisms of neurodegeneration in glaucoma.

Using systems, cellular and molecular approaches, they investigate how risk factors contribute to neurodegeneration and test new treatments. Dr. Calkins specializes in molecular mechanisms of the retina and optic nerve. In this video:

  • Catalyst For a Cure (CFC): A New Model for Scientific Research
  • Benefits of Collaborative Research
  • The Focus of CFC Research
  • A Neurobiological Approach to Glaucoma Research

- Transcript -

Catalyst For a Cure (CFC): A New Model for Scientific Research

David Calkins: The Catalyst For a Cure is unique in that it represents a new model for doing biomedical research. In the standard model, individual investigators are funded to work independently of one another and in parallel — and most often is the case, in competition with one another.

The Catalyst For a Cure differs in that four separate laboratories were identified at the beginning with the directive to collaborate with one another and to bring to bear the various tools that they offer, not in parallel and independently, but together as a team and as part of a collaborative effort. So it really represents a new model for doing biomedical research.

Benefits of Collaborative Research

Each of us has a special set of tools and a special set of expertise that we can bring to bear as a team. But what we have found is that this is really an entity where the end result is greater than the sum of its individual pieces. So more than just bringing four sets of ideas and tools to the table, we have been able to come up with a creative process that really multiplies that manifold to come up with a product that is far greater than if you just add together those four labs working independently. So it pushed each of us really to become more creative, more ingenuous than we would have if each of us were working independently and alone.

The Focus of CFC Research

The Catalyst For a Cure decided at its inception that we were really going to focus on the earliest events in glaucoma. And the standard view of glaucoma puts a lot of emphasis on problems in the front part of the eye that have to do with ocular pressure. And in point of fact what blinds in glaucoma is the death of a set of neurons in the back of the eye called retinal ganglion cells — and these retinal ganglion cells send fibers to the brain and they are really the conduit to which visual information reaches the brain.

In glaucoma the problems in front of the eye cause the death of these cells and those fibers that go to the brain. What the Catalyst For a Cure decided was that we were really going to focus on the earliest events in that degeneration process of those cells.

A Neurobiological Approach

The problem with glaucoma is that while we can very often manage the problems that occur in the front of the eye, such as elevated ocular pressure, the death of the optic nerve and retinal ganglion cells continues mostly unabated.

No matter what we do to the front of the eye, the blindness and the progression of vision loss will continue. It's true that it can be slowed. It's true that it often goes away for periods of time but it never is truly cured.

And so what we are really attempting to do is to intervene in such a way that we attack the root of the problem from a neurobiological standpoint. What we want to do is to make all of those problems at the front of the eye almost irrelevant to treating the disease.

We are facing a challenge right now and here's the challenge. We are sitting on a pile of fundamental results that have to do with the mechanisms of early degeneration in glaucoma. The challenge is to translate all of these many basic results into practical applications for the disease, and that is really a terrific hurdle that most scientists in biomedical research at some point in their career either decide that they are not going to face or spend the rest of their career facing, and this is really the hurdle that we want to accomplish in the next three years — to translate these fundamental results into clinical application.

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Visit the Calkins laboratory website

Last reviewed on January 16, 2018

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