BRIght Futures Winners

BRIght Futures Winners

Brigham researchers are leveraging technology to detect nerve damage and improve eyesight and received and received funding from the BRIght Futures Prizes.

The ninth BRIght Futures Prize was presented at the annual Research Appreciation Celebration on June 23. This year, two winning projects each received $50,000 to catalyze their innovations.

The BRIght Futures Prizes support investigators across the Brigham Research Institute (BRI) as they work to answer provocative questions or solve grand problems. The prize, which is supported philanthropically, and the work it sponsors advance the mission of the BRI by catalyzing the kind of innovative translational research that is only possible at an academic medical center, where basic researchers and clinicians work side by side.
This year’s winning projects are:


Using Smartphone Pictures to Diagnose Nerve Damage
by Peter Novak, MD, PhD
Associate Professor, Department of Neurology


What problem are you trying to solve?

Small fiber neuropathy, which affects the small nerve fibers in the skin, is a common condition that impacts millions of people. It can cause disabling pain, dizziness with standing, brain fog, fatigue, constipation, urinary problems and cold or hot intolerance. COVID-19 can also damage the nerves, which may make neuropathy even more common. Tests for this condition are expensive and available only in few specialized centers. This project addresses the problem of limited availability of testing for small fiber neuropathy.
What is your solution and how will the BRIght Futures Prize allow you to pursue this?
My solution is to use machine learning/artificial intelligence to detect small fiber neuropathy remotely and virtually using skin pictures obtained by routine smart phones. Patients would take a photo on their smart phone and the app, using artificial intelligence, will detect abnormal skin textures associated with small fiber neuropathy. The BRIght Futures Prize will allow me to refine this approach and would fund the hours I need to complete this project.

How will your research project benefit people?

This project provides a solution for limited access to a particular type of health care – availability of a diagnostic test. Early and correct diagnosis of nerve damage is essential for effective treatment. If successful, the project may improve and increase access to health care for millions of people using available infrastructure (internet and smart phone).


A Second Chance at Sight
Victor Pui-Yan Ma, PhD
NCI K00 Research Fellow, Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine

by Jeffrey M. Karp, Ph.D.
Distinguished Chair in Clinical Anesthesiology, Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine


What problem are you trying to solve?

Glaucoma is a leading cause of irreversible blindness. It is a neurological disease where highly specialized nerve cells responsible for communicating information between the eye and brain die or are damaged throughout a person’s lifetime and cannot be replenished. More than 80 million patients worldwide are suffering from this devastating disease. Currently, there is no cure for glaucoma. Standard prevention care and drugs that lower eye pressure only help slow the progression of vision loss. Looking to nature for inspiration, we found that many animals such as zebrafish and salamanders can repair or regenerate their eyes after injury. What if we can awaken the regenerative capacity of human eyes? We aim to restore the regenerative potential of a special type of eye cells to regrow nerve cells in the human eye. Our ultimate goal will be to give patients suffering from glaucoma or other neurodegenerative diseases a second chance to see the world again.

What is your solution and how will the BRIght Futures Prize allow you to pursue this?

Our idea is to design a “cocktail” of small molecules to transform cells within the eye into functional neuronal cells that are responsible for carrying visual signals to the brain. Small molecules are compounds that can pass through the cell membrane to reach within a cell. Finding just the right mix of small molecules can coax cells toward different fates. The small molecules we select will instruct cells to achieve a “younger” stage where they have the ability to become critical cell types within the eye.

The BRIght Futures Prize will allow us to perform key experiments to pursue this exciting yet challenging idea. We have substantial experience in developing formulations to reactivate “dormant” cells in the body, and several technologies produced in the lab have led to multiple products currently in development or on the market. We strongly believe that our previous experience will uniquely enable us to develop suitable small-molecule cocktails to redirect and regrow neuronal cells within the eye for potential treatment of neurodegenerative eye disease such as glaucoma.

How will your research project benefit people?

Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness, and currently there is no cure for this disease. If successful, our small-molecule cocktails will provide the first-in-class treatment to restore vision in a way that could not have been imagined before. We hope to give patients with blindness a second chance to see their loved ones again.