Doctor wins NIH prize for ideas to restore vision

A Washington University retina specialist is one of 10 U.S. scientists selected by the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for innovative projects to improve or restore vision.

The winning proposal from Rajesh C. Rao, MD, a vitreoretinal surgery fellow in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, was chosen from nearly 500 entries. Rao was one of only two retina clinicians to receive the award and the youngest winner in the national competition.

His proposal involves restoring vision in patients whose retinas have deteriorated from diseases like age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in older adults. He wants to reprogram skin and blood cells from patients because they can be easy to isolate and are compatible with the immune system. Once reprogrammed, those cells could be transplanted into the retina.


In patients with degenerative retinal diseases, Rao also has suggested reprogramming surviving retinal cells into specific cell types to replace those that are damaged. The retina is the structure at the back of the eye that converts light into vision. To restore vision in retinal cells sensitive to light, called photoreceptors, Rao also wants to genetically target cells in the retina that can’t sense light and encourge them to produce exotic light-sensitive pigments that are found in other organisms, such as algae.

“We want to use gene therapy and other techniques to repair the damage that occurs in degenerative retinal diseases,” says Rao. “By identifying the small molecules that directly convert a mature cell into a retinal cell, we hope to reprogram cells that already exist in the body to make them useful in preserving or restoring vision.”

The prize competition is a key component of the NEI Challenge to Identify Audacious Goals in Vision Research and Blindness Rehabilitation. The NEI Challenge is part of a governmentwide effort to bring the best ideas and top talent to bear on the nation’s most pressing challenges.

“The Audacious Goals initiative was born out of the NEI strategic planning process, however it is much more than a standard strategic planning exercise,” says Paul A. Sieving, MD, PhD, NEI director. “We are envisioning the future. When we look back 10 to 12 years from now, what do we want to have accomplished? The Audacious Goals initiative will help propel us into that future.”

Rao and the other winners will receive a cash prize, plus travel expenses to attend the NEI Audacious Goals Development Meeting, Feb. 24-26 in Potomac, Md.

For more information about the Audacious Goals challenge, visit the website.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

The National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, leads the federal government’s research on the visual system and eye diseases. NEI supports basic and clinical science programs that result in the development of sight-saving treatments. For more information, visit

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit