Dr. Michael Steinmetz Video (Text Version)
2019 VRP Programmatic Panel Member Vignette
Title: Generating New Treatments for Warfighters and Their Families
Michael Steinmetz, PhD; National Eye Institute
When I first came to the National Eye Institute as a Program Officer, it was the second year of the Vision Research Program in fact, and my predecessor at NEI was on their Programmatic Panel; then he retired and I took his place. So I’ve been with the group probably longer than anyone else at the table there.
One way in which the program has changed over the 10 years of its existence is that I think it’s become much more focused on immediate care of Warfighters and providing support for devices and treatments that are usable in the field. Certainly, on the front lines, the issues are always immediate response to injury to try to preserve vision. And then, once off of the front lines, then the issues become how to restore vision that’s lost.
At the NIH, most of our focus is on basic science. The Programmatic Panel at the Vision Research Program is really focused on generating treatments now for Warfighters or family of Veterans, and I find that applied urgency of the need to be very interesting.
In the last few years, we’re seeing that regenerative medicine has taken a big step forward. These are methods to restore vision to people who have lost it, not just to preserve what is left. There are approaches using gene therapy. There are approaches using stem cell therapy and products of stem cells to try to restore vision. And I think that regenerative medicine is the most exciting area. There’s also been a lot of advances in the area of visual prosthesis, so using cameras to take images, to process them and deliver them to an implant that can either stimulate the retina or stimulate the cerebral cortex to evoke visual sensations in people that have no vision. So that’s a very exciting area that’s expanding as well.
The award mechanisms vary from year to year. This year, we have three; one is a continuation award for people who have had some funding in the past and are now ready to move onto the next step. The second mechanism is investigator-initiated research, so these are new ideas that are being presented for the first time. And then the third mechanism, which is new this year to the program, is a team science award in which we’ve asked investigators to put together collaborative teams from across different departments, across different universities, to tackle a bigger problem.
Team science is really important today because technology has advanced so far and the depth of knowledge in different fields has advanced so far that not one investigator can have all of those tools in their back pocket. And so they need to find collaborators that have complementary tools to be able to tackle the big problem from a different perspective.
The grants are sent out to a panel of scientific reviewers who established the scientific priorities. What’s the best science? The job of the Programmatic Panel is to decide: How well does this research fit with the needs of the Department of Defense and with the Warfighters?
What I advise every applicant to the program is to read carefully what the Program Announcement is. These are often overlooked by applicants, and the Program Announcement contains exact details of what the program is looking for. And sometimes the attempt is to try to modify what they’re doing to make it sound like something that’s interesting to the program when, in fact, they should be modifying what they’re doing to deliver the best possible research outcome for what the program needs.
One difference between this panel and that of the NIH panel is they do consider consumers when they’re doing the review of the application. And I think that’s really important. When you focus very hard on the science, you sometimes lose track of who’s going to use this and what difference is it going to make to them. And by having those opinions expressed at the time of the review, it reminds us that, ultimately, people need these and it needs to be useful to them.
So I think the DoD Vision Research Program is fantastic. The people who are involved in it are very, very committed to it. The science is outstanding. I think it’s unfortunate that it’s not funded enough to be able to fund all of the great science that’s on the table.