Challenge met: Donors contribute more than $7.6M to vision research at JAX

JAX researchers discuss how philanthropy is furthering scientific research and training activities in the field of neurodegenerative diseases of the eye.

JAX has received more than $7.6 million in philanthropic investment to support vision research, which includes a recent challenge grant as well as the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation’s 2020 donation of $2 million and their $1.5 million gift in 2018 to establish the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Chair for Glaucoma Research at JAX.

The Jackson Laboratory recently received $2 million in philanthropic gifts from The Gordon and Llura Gund Foundation trustee Gordon Gund, who is co-founder, director, and chairman emeritus of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and an anonymous donor in support of vision research at the Laboratory. The two donors met a “challenge grant” from The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, which matched their gift with an additional $2 million to JAX. This brings the total philanthropic investment from JAX supporters for vision research to more than $7.6 million, which includes the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation’s 2020 donation of $2 million and their $1.5 million gift in 2018 to establish the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Chair for Glaucoma Research at JAX.

“We are profoundly grateful to the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, Gordon Gund and an anonymous donor for this transformational gift in continued support of vision research at JAX,” says Lon Cardon, Ph.D., FMedSci, president and CEO of The Jackson Laboratory. “Their generosity is advancing breakthrough research into glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, ocular signs of Alzheimer’s disease and so much more, and their support of our scientists and our work means the world to us.”

The gifts fund the Laboratory’s scientific research and training activities in the field of neurodegenerative diseases of the eye, including graduate and postdoctoral fellowship training.

Fighting eye disease with philanthropy and research

“My mother, an avid reader, was struck with glaucoma in her 90s. We, as a family, know firsthand the importance of finding a cure for glaucoma and other debilitating neurodegenerative eye diseases. We are confident that researchers at JAX will lead the way,” says Diana Davis Spencer, executive chairman of the Foundation. Spencer and her family have deep roots with JAX and a long history of giving back – the Foundation has donated to the Laboratory since 1974, and before that Spencer’s father (the late Ambassador Shelby Cullom Davis) was a JAX board member from 1968 to 1982.

JAX Professor Gareth Howell, Ph.D., holds the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation Chair for Glaucoma Research. He applies genetics and genomics approaches to study age-related neurodegeneration associated with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and glaucoma.

Vision research at JAX has already benefitted tremendously from the generous gifts, which have enabled the initiation of projects to map the cellular landscape of the aging retina. This work will help researchers determine why age is the greatest risk factor for common ocular disorders like glaucoma.

“Without these amazing donations, we would not have been able to get going so quickly on our research to understand how aging contributes to increased risk for glaucoma and other diseases of the eye,” says Howell. “We look forward to expanding these efforts as well as determining the value for using the eye as a biomarker for dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

JAX Professor Martin Pera, an expert in human stem cell biology, will also utilize the gifts for vision research. Pera is among a small group of researchers who pioneered the isolation and characterization of pluripotent stem cells from human germ cell tumors, studies that provided an important framework for the development of human embryonic stem cells.

Training the next generation

Part of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation’s gift provides graduate students and postdoctoral fellows the opportunity to be mentored by world-class experts in ocular biology, genetics and genomics, disease modeling and computational biology. Cory Diemler and Olivia Marola, Ph.D., predoctoral and postdoctoral associates (respectively) in the Howell lab, and Nadjib Dastagir, Ph.D. and Navdeep Gogna, Ph.D., postdoctoral associates in the Nishina lab, are the first Diana Davis Spencer Foundation trainees. Diemler is interested in understanding the molecular underpinnings behind glaucoma and microglia, while Marola studies the neurodegenerative mechanisms driving retinal diseases and diseases of the brain.

JAX Professor Patsy Nishina is on the oversight committee for the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation trainees. Nishina, along with Gogna, Dastagir and the rest of the Nishina lab, employ mouse models of human eye disease to study gene function and mechanisms underlying disease pathology. Over the past decade, Nishina and her colleagues have developed mouse models for translational vision research that are now available to the biomedical research community. Dozens of these mouse models carry genetic variants previously linked to retinal developmental or degenerative ocular disease.