Did you know that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Eye Institute (NEI)?  Established in 1968, the NEI was created by Congress out of the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Blindness.  New therapies and advances in understanding of ophthalmic disease  resulted in remarkable improvements in visual outcomes for patients across the United States and worldwide over the subsequent decades.

An early milestone in the life of the NEI was the design and implementation of what would become landmark clinical trials in diabetic retinopathy.  The Diabetic Retinopathy Study, the Diabetic Retinopathy Vitrectomy Study, and the Early Treatment Diabetic Retinopathy Study all revolutionized care for individuals with diabetic eye disease.  These studies were the first to establish the efficacy of laser photocoagulation for treatment of proliferative diabetic retinopathy and diabetic macular edema, as well as the benefits of vitrectomy for vitreous hemorrhage from diabetic retinal neovascularization.  Just as importantly, these trials set the standard for the field as rigorously designed and meticulously executed, multicenter randomized clinical trials that provided definitive answers for cutting-edge clinical questions.

The field of retina has benefited from countless other NEI-supported endeavors.  In addition to funding more than 210 types of grant mechanisms to outside investigators in its extramural program, the intramural research program has also contributed scientific advances, including the identification of key components of the visual cycle in the early 1990s. Another major milestone occurred in 2001, when the Age Related Eye Disease Study demonstrated the benefit of antioxidant therapy in slowing the worsening of age-related macular degeneration. Since then, large multicenter randomized clinical trials, such as the Comparison of Age-related Macular Degeneration Treatments Trials (CATT) and the Standard Care versus Corticosteroid for Retinal Vein Occlusion (SCORE) Study, have had a major impact on our management of diseases such as neovascular age-related macular degeneration and central retinal vein occlusion.

Over the past 2 decades, the NEI has extended its support to collaborative research networks such as the Pediatric Eye Disease Investigator Group and the DRCR.net.  The DRCR.net was established as the Diabetic Retinopathy Clinical Research Network in 2003.  Since its inception, the Network has reported multiple studies that have revolutionized care for diabetic eye disease, including the first phase 3 trials of antivascular endothelial growth factor for diabetic macular edema and proliferative diabetic retinopathy.  The DRCR.net has been cited twice in the United States Congressional Record for its achievements in improving visual outcomes for diabetic patients.

It is truly remarkable to look back at the progress we’ve made over the past five decades in reducing visual impairment and blindness from diseases across the spectrum of ocular pathology. The NEI has played a crucial role in encouraging basic science and clinical research endeavors that have made this progress possible.  As we congratulate ourselves on past achievements, however, it is critical to recognize the importance of continuing to provide sufficient federal funding for future scientific investigations that will even further enhance our abilities to preserve and improve vision.

Note:  Dr Sun serves as the Chair of the DRCR.net for diabetes initiatives.

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