Million-dollar prize competition for 3-D retina organoids

Photo: David Gamm
Photo: David Gamm

The National Eye Institute in USA has announced a $1 million prize competition, 3-D Retina Organoid Challenge 2020, to develop 3-D retina organoids from stem cells.

Until now, research efforts to understand and cure retinal diseases have been hampered by the lack of tissue models that replicate the complexity and functionality of the human retina. The 3-D ROC 2020, a “Retina in a dish” competition, was developed by the National Eye Institute to accelerate therapies for retinal diseases.

“The aim is to generate models that will help us to better understand retinal diseases and allow us to screen drugs in a system that’s more functionally representative of the human eye,” explains Jessica Mazerik.

Mazerik and Steven Becker are the coordinators of the challenge from the National Eye Institute, NEI. The American institute leads the federal government’s research on the visual system and eye diseases. It supports basic and clinical science programs to develop sight-saving treatments and address special needs of people with vision loss.

How to implement 3-D screen printing?

The ongoing phase of the 3-D ROC 2020 challenge is the implementation phase. The idea challenge was launched in May 2017, and a $90,000 prize was awarded in September 2017.
“Back then, we asked the community to tell us, with no preliminary data required, what ideas they had for building better retina organoids that function more like human eye tissue. We were very happy to get 13 proposals, also from engineers and people working in material science and outside the vision community,” Jessica Mazerik says.

Erin Lavik, Sc.D., at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, led the winning team. They introduced an idea of building a retina by screen printing adult neural progenitor-derived retinal neurons in layers that mimic the structure of the human retina.

“The judges thought screen printing to be a very simple and elegant way to solve a problem where retinal neurons need to be layered on top of each other into a structure that resembles retinal tissue. This technique is straightforward to learn and can be transferred between research groups, and if it works, it could be high throughput and reproducible,” Mazerik says.
In the ongoing implementation challenge, research teams will build retina organoids and submit data that show how they represent human tissue. The ultimate goal is to show how the organoids model a certain disease or how they can be produced in high numbers to screen drugs.

Two rounds and submission dates

The data for the first round must be submitted on October 1, 2018, and the data for the last phase must be submitted by March 2, 2020. Researchers from all over the world can enter as long as the team lead is a US citizen.

“We can have up to 6 teams winning up to $100,000 for the first part, and for the second part, the total prize is $400,000 dollars plus anything that we don’t award in the first part. The second phase will have up to 3 winners. So the total overall is one million dollars,” Steven Becker says.
Since research groups can’t use their federal grants to fund this work, the idea of the first phase is to award some winners, and if they choose to, they can put the prize money back into their research to continue on.

Sponsors important for the competition

UPM Biomedicals is one of the sponsors of the competition. Steven Becker notes that the companies’ sponsorship is very important because it helps to ease the financial burden of the research groups.

“It is a really big deal when you don’t have a major funding source supporting your project. We are very grateful for all the companies involved.”

UPM will provide each team with 5 ml of GrowDex® hydrogel for 3-D cell culture for free. They also get a discount of 10% on GrowDex and GrowDase® products for the duration of the challenge.

“Scientifically, what UPM offers is really valuable. GrowDex is a unique product that offers unique solutions to growing cells in 3-D and giving them structural support. Since GrowDex is plant-based, the hydrogel can be manipulated without affecting the human tissue,” Becker says.
There are many good reasons to participate in the competition.

“This is a great opportunity for collaboration and getting recognition in the research community and in the vision research community. There is also the chance to work with companies, and all participants also retain the IP on any systems they build. What we would hope to see is that the products they make get commercialised. Some of the companies have expertise that is really valuable to the teams for moving a product to commercialisation,” Becker says.

Read more about the challenge and instructions on how to enter the competition: