CU Researchers Win Prize from National Eye Institute

Natalia Vergara, PhD(April 2021) Natalia Vergara, PhD, assistant professor of ophthalmology, was awarded a 3D ROC prize by the National Eye Institute (NEI) for her research team’s work to create better models to accelerate the development of new therapies for retinal diseases.

The prize competition was established by the NEI to promote research on creating improved three-dimensional retinas in vitro, known as retinal organoids, derived from human stem cells, that can help researchers across the country with their work. The full name of the 3D ROC competition is 3D Retina Organoid Challenge.

Vergara and her team were the awardees in Phase II of the NEI’s 3D ROC competition, receiving $60,000 for their work developing an organoid model that mimics the composition of the human retina and can respond to light.

A key innovation of the team’s project was the use of engineered stem cells that allow different cell types in these retinas to fluoresce in different colors, and the combination of this system with a state-of-the-art technology that enables the quantification of those cells in real time. This breakthrough allows for the application of human retinal organoids to the screening and validation of drugs as potential treatments for blinding diseases.

Vergara conducts research on the Anschutz Medical Campus and she is a member of CellSight, a multidisciplinary research initiative that aims to develop stem cell-based therapeutics to save and restore sight in patients with blinding diseases.

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