History of the International Symposium on Retinal Degeneration

Brief History of the RD Meetings Robert E. Anderson, Joe G. Hollyfield, and Matthew M. LaVail recognized the need for a small scientific meeting where basic researchers and clinicians from around the world could meet and discuss inherited and acquired retinal degenerations. At about this time, Richard Lolley and Debora Farber had discovered the biochemical defect causing photoreceptor degeneration in the rd mouse. It was also around this time that the Foundation Fighting Blindness (then known as the National Retinitis Pigmentosa Foundation) and the National Eye Institute increased funding of biochemical and molecular biological studies on retinal degenerations. An attractive venue for such a meeting was the biennial congress of the International Society for Eye Research, then referred to as the International Congress of Eye Research (ICER). In 1984, the first symposium was organized as part of the V ICER program at Alicante, Spain in 1984. We were hopeful that these meetings would continue and felt that it would be important to have a record of each meeting and for this, arranged for the publication of a proceedings volume for this and each subsequent symposium.

In 1986, the format for the meeting dramatically changed when the second RD symposium was held in Sendai, Japan. First, the length of time for each presentation was increased to 30 minutes, with an enforced 10-minute discussion period at the end of each talk. Second, the meeting was physically separated from the ICER meeting and was held in an isolated, small conference hotel where all attendees were housed, fed and the scientific program conducted. This environment promoted a collegial and relaxed atmosphere where scientists and clinicians could interact at their leisure. Third, the organizers went to great lengths to encourage clinician scientists to attend the meeting in Sendai. Apart from a large number of Japanese ophthalmologists, a number of ophthalmologists from other parts of the world also attended the third symposium, including Professors Allen Bird (England), Alan Laties (USA), and John Heckenlively (USA). Fourth, a local host in the city/country where the meeting was being organized was identified and brought into the organization of the meeting. With one exception, each local organizer has been chair of an ophthalmology program who is well known in the vision community for both their research and clinical accomplishments. The involvement of local chairmen of ophthalmology was extremely important in attracting clinician scientists from other institutions to attend these meetings. Our local host for the Sendai meeting in 1986 was Professor Katsuyoshi Mizuno, MD, PhD, Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at Tohoku University in Sendai. Dr. Mizuno was a strong supporter of research activities in his department and was personally known in the RD field for the first electron microscopy studies of the retina in a postmortem eye from an individual with retinitis pigmentosa.

In 1988, the third RD symposium was held a few days preceding the start of the ICER meeting at San Francisco. The tremendous response and interest in this meeting dictated that all future RD meetings would be held for a longer period of time and in a location separate from the ICER meeting. However, all RD meetings continue to be held as a satellite meeting of the biennial ICER (now ISER) meetings. Subsequent RD meetings have followed the format established for the Sendai meeting.

In 1990, the RD meeting was held in Stockholm, Sweden, and the local organizer was Professor Sven Erik Nilsson, MD, PhD, Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at Linkoping University. Dr. Nilsson was well known for his early research on the ultrastructure of developing vertebrate photoreceptors discovering that the outer segment membranes are derived from the plasma membrane of cilia.

In 1992, the symposium was held in Puerto Cuervo, Sardinia and was hosted by Professor Nicola Orzelasi, MD, Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Milan. While a medical student preforming electron microscopy on human retinal pigment epithelium in 1963, Dr. Orzelasi was the first to interpret correctly the origin of the lamellar inclusion bodies present in the RPE (now termed phagosomes) as having originally been part of the photoreceptor outer segment. In addition, the prediction was made that the loss of fragments from the tip of the outer segment should be balanced by the addition of new membrane material to the base of the outer segment, a prediction of the rod outer segment renewal process.

In 1994 the meeting convened in Jerusalem, Israel and the local host was the late Professor Elaine Berman, PhD. Dr. Berman had a distinguished career as a vision scientist and published many outstanding research papers and a book on the biochemistry of the eye.

The meeting returned to Sendai, Japan in 1996, where it was hosted by Professor Makoto Tamai, MD, PhD, Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at Tohoku University. Dr. Tamai had a strong research program in his department on molecular biology of inherited retinal degenerations and retinal/RPE transplantation.

In 1998, the meeting was held in the Black Forest of Germany, in the town of Schluchsee, and was hosted by Professor Eberhart Zrenner, MD, Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Tubingen. Dr. Zrenner is a well-known clinician scientist and highly respected for his early work in electrophysiology and more recently in genetics and development of ocular prostheses.

In 2000, the meeting returned to the United States and was held in Durango, Colorado. Because of the proximity of the organizers, Drs. Anderson, Hollyfield and LaVail served as local hosts for RD2000. This meeting was significant because it marked the first time Travel Awards for young investigators were offered. Through the generous support of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, 10 young investigators attended this meeting.

The 2002 meeting was held Sept 30 – Oct. 5, 2002 in Bürgenstock, Switzerland with Professor Charlotte Remé, Dr. Andreas Wenzel, and Dr. Christian Grimm as local hosts. RD2002 was the first to receive support from the National Eye Institute through a conference grant. Two keynote presentations were included as a part of this program, one by Professor Alan Bird, MD of Moorfields Eye Hospital (London) and the other by Professor Jean Bennett, MD, PhD of the University of Pennsylvania. Support from the Foundation Fighting Blindness and the National Eye Institute allowed funding of 23 travel awards for young investigators to participate in this meeting.

The RD2004 meeting was held in Perth, Western Australia on August 23-28, 2004 with Professor Elizabeth Rakoczy as local host. An outstanding scientific program was presented, which included three keynote lectures, 36 platform presentations, and 80 posters. A total of 154 scientists attended this meeting, including 34 Travel Awardees. The keynote speakers were Dr. Paul Sieving, MD, PhD (Director of the National Eye Institute); Professor Ian Constable, MD (Lions Eye Institute, Australia); and Professor Thaddeus Dryja, MD, PhD (Harvard). One of the unique features of this meeting was that two hours each day (one hour in the morning and another in the afternoon) were committed solely to poster presentations, coincident with prolonged coffee/tea that was served in the poster viewing area. The posters remained displayed for the entire meeting for viewing and discussing with authors on an ad hoc basis during other breaks. This was the start of our tradition of having a lengthy reserved time for poster viewing.

RD2006 was held in the beautiful village of San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina on October 23-26 and Professor Nicolas Bazan, MD, PhD (Louisiana State University) served as the “local” host. Even though Dr. Bazan had lived in the USA since 1980, he had a large number of contacts in Argentina and was very effective in making the local arrangements for this meeting. Three keynote presentations were included in the program given by Professor Ruben Adler, PhD (Johns Hopkins), Professor Eliot Berson, MD (Harvard), and Professor Perluigi Nicotera, PhD (Liverpool). Forty-six additional platform presentations were made and 54 posters were presented. Twenty-six young investigators received travel awards to attend this meeting.

In 2008, the meeting convened in Emeishan, Sichuan Province, China at the spectacular Hong Zhu Shan Hotel, situated at the base on Mount Emei. The meeting was highlighted by keynote lectures given by Professor Glen Prusky, PhD (Cornell) and Professor Peter Campochiaro, MD, PhD (Johns Hopkins). The meeting was attended by 152 scientists, and 35 young investigators were supported with travel awards. At this meeting, the three original organizers invited Drs. Christian Grimm (Univ. Zurich) and John Ash (Univ. Florida) to join the RD Organizing Committee.

The RD2010 meeting was held at Mont Tremblant, Canada, which was attended by 228 scientists, the largest number thus far. A total of 42 travel awards were made to young investigators. Three Keynote Lectures were given by Professor Elise Heon, MD (Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto), Professor Gregory Hageman, PhD (John Moran Eye Center, Utah), and Professor Jayakrishna Ambati, MD, PhD (Univ. of Kentucky). The meeting coincided with a jazz festival, which made for an exciting time for both attendees and accompanying persons. At this meeting Dr. Catherine (Cathy) Bowes Rickman (Duke University) was invited to join the Organizing Committee

The RD2012 meeting in Bad Gögging, Bavaria, Germany was remarkable for several reasons. There were two new sponsors of travel awards, Pro-Retina Germany and the Fritz Tobler Foundation, a Swiss-based organization. With these new sources of support, along with continued support from the National Eye Institute and the Foundation Fighting Blindness, 56 travel awards were made, which represented 25% of the 222 scientists attending this meeting. Five keynote presentations were featured in the program given by Dr. Chi-Chao Chan, PhD (National Eye Institute), Professor Scott Cousins, MD (Duke University School of Medicine), Professor V. Michael Holers, PhD (University of Colorado School of Medicine), Professor Thomas Langmann, PhD (Regensburg, Germany), and Professor Paul McMenamin, PhD (Monash University, Australia).

RD2014 was held July 13-18, 2014 at the rustic but beautiful Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California, on the Monterey Peninsula. The program included three keynote presentations by Professor Samuel G. Jacobson, MD, PhD (University of Pennsylvania), Professor Sally Temple, PhD (Neural Stem Cell Institute, Albany, NY), and Professor John Flannery, PhD (University of California, Berkley). This was the largest meeting to date with 272 scientists including 49 young investigators supported by travel awards. BrightFocus Foundation became a partner in this meeting by providing support for the poster sessions.

In 2016, the RD meeting returned to Japan for the third time and was held in the beautiful city of Kyoto. It attracted the largest number of scientists to date (298) and including 48 young investigators supported by travel awards. There were five keynote speakers, highlighted by the one given by Professor Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD (Kyoto University), who was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery that adult somatic cells can be reprogrammed into pluripotent cells. Other keynote lectures were given by Professor Robert E. Marc, PhD (University of Utah) Professor José-Alain Sahel, MD, PhD (Institut de la Vision, Paris), Professor Takeshi Iwata, PhD (National Institute of Sensory Organs, Tokyo), and Professor. Nagahisa Yoshimura, MD, PhD (Kyoto University).

In 2018, the RD meeting convened in Killarney, Ireland on September 3-8, 2018. Participants included 295 retinal degeneration investigators from around the globe. With support from the National Eye Institute, Foundation Fighting Blindness, BrightFocus Foundation, Fritz Tobler Foundation, Science Foundation Ireland, Pro-Retina Germany, Bayer Switzerland, and Bioscience Ireland, 67 young investigators were able to attend this meeting with travel awards. Four keynote speakers presented outstanding state-of-the-art presentations on retinal degeneration research: Professor Rando Allikmets, PhD (Columbia), Professor Jacque L. Duncan, MD (UCSF), Professor James T. Handa, MD (Johns Hopkins), and Professor Peter Humphries, PhD (Trinity College Dublin). This was the last RD meeting for Dr. Matthew LaVail, one of the original organizers, who retired earlier from the University of California at San Francisco. Dr. Eric Pierce (Harvard Medical School) was invited to join the RD Organizing Committee.

RD20/20 2020 began with the emergence of a new highly infectious coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV2, which spread rapidly and led to a worldwide pandemic declaration. Out of necessity, the organizers canceled the RD20/20 meeting. With the development of multiple highly effective vaccines, the organizers could reschedule the XIXth International Symposium on Retinal degeneration for September of 2021.

RD2021 The XIX International Symposium on Retinal Degeneration was held from September 26 to October 2, 2021. From the beginning, we planned the meeting as an in-person meeting with the capability of switching to a hybrid or fully online meeting depending on the state of the pandemic, and we moved the in-person meeting to the US to reduce travel complications for most attendees. As the SARS-CoV-2 delta variant began to surge in the weeks leading up to September, we had to activate the hybrid meeting. The meeting platform we established allowed both in-person and virtual platform talks as well as both in-person and virtual attendance. The platform was organized so that all presentations were live and all participants were able to ask questions. All presentations, including posters, were recorded and made available four months after the meeting. The in-person sessions were held in the Sonesta Nashville Airport Hotel in Nashville, TN. Because of COVID concerns, the in-person attendance was small (118 scientists) compared to previous meetings (~250 scientists), but the overall attendance increased to 344 attendees. The virtual option was the main driver for the increase in attendance. The meeting program included four outstanding keynote presentations from Michael Chiang, Director of the National Eye Institute on Artificial intelligence for clinical care and research; Douglas Wallace, National academy of Science member and Professor at the University of Pennsylvania on Mitochondria and the etiology of disease; David Gamm, Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Ultrathin micromolded 3D scaffolds for outer retina reconstruction; Valeria Canto-Soler, Professor at the University of Colorado on Human iPSC-derived 3D retinal tissue for stem cell-based therapies for retinal degenerative diseases. Drs Chiang and Wallace presented via the virtual platform, while Drs Gamm and Canto-Soler presented from the podium. The program also included 41 platform talks, with 28 presented in person from the podium and another 13 presented virtually. In addition, 143 posters were presented as short talks on the virtual platform. Seventy-three of the posters were also presented in person during two well-attended poster sessions. New and important data was presented at the meeting, and we were mentioned in a written article published on NPR, and several attendees were interviewed by reporters from Science and other journals. The RD2021 Travel award competition was highly successful at attracting qualified applicants. We received a 35% increase in TA applications for a total of 196. The applications were reviewed by a panel of 14 expert reviewers, including six women, eight men, and scientists from a recognized underrepresented minority (URM). We were able to support full travel awards for 60 in-person early career scientists and another 41 virtual early-career scientists. This is the largest pool of awardees at an RD meeting. The awards were balanced between men and women. In addition, we implemented a new diversity and inclusion policy and dedicated a minimum of 6 awards to underrepresented minorities (URM). In the end, we were able to fund 11 URMs to attend the RD meeting. Although the pandemic made the RD2021 meeting more complex and more challenging to organize, the RD2021 meeting was, by all accounts, a terrific success.

RD2023 to be continued! We hope you can join us at the RD2023 meeting to help write the next chapter.

Impact of the RD Meetings on the Field The overall plan for these RD meetings was to develop a format with a focus on retinal degeneration research that would attract both basic and clinician scientists committed to this area of investigation. We reasoned that with the new breakthroughs in molecular biology and the molecular diagnosis of a variety of retinal degenerations, the time was ripe to bring a small number of these different “camps” together in a pleasant and somewhat isolated environment where there was sufficient time to interact in the meeting hall as well as during meal and social times. An excursion day included as part of the program at each meeting proved to be especially beneficial for the young investigators, where they found ample time to interact with leaders in the field. The interactions between the basic and clinician scientists were remarkably successful and many fruitful collaborations resulted from casual conversations outside of the meeting hall. Early on we recognized the need to bring new investigators into this exciting area of research and are grateful for the support of NIH/NEI and philanthropic organizations in this effort. Since RD2000, 381 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and young faculty have received full funding to attend these meetings. For many of these travel awardees, attending the RD meeting helped solidify their commitment to focus their research careers on retinal degeneration.

Publications of Proceedings of the RD meetings A proceedings volume including most of the presentations included in each RD symposium has been published. Collectively, these publications provide a lasting history of the progression of retinal degeneration research over the last 35 years. The organizers are grateful to each investigator participating in these RD meetings and for contributing a chapter to these proceedings volumes.

1. LaVail, M.M., J.G. Hollyfield, and R.E. Anderson (editors). Retinal Degeneration: Experimental and Clinical Studies. Alan R. Liss, Inc. (New York) 1985.

2. Hollyfield, J.G., R.E. Anderson, and M.M. LaVail (editors). Progress in Clinical and Biological Research, Vol. 247. Degenerative Retinal Disorders: Clinical and Laboratory Investigations. Alan R. Liss, Inc. (New York) 1987.

3. LaVail, M.M., R.E. Anderson, and Hollyfield, J.G. (editors). Inherited and Environmentally Induced Retinal Degenerations, Alan R. Liss, Inc. (New York) 1989.

4. Anderson, R.E., J.G. Hollyfield, and M.M. LaVail (editors). Retinal Degenerations, CRC Press, Inc. (Boca Raton FL) 1991.

5. Hollyfield, J.G., R.E. Anderson, and M.M. LaVail (editors). Retinal Degenerations. Clinical and Laboratory Manifestations. Plenum Press (New York) 1993.

6. Anderson, R.E., J.G. Hollyfield, and M.M. LaVail (editors). Degenerative Diseases of the Retina. Plenum Press (New York) 1995.

7. LaVail, M.M., J.G. Hollyfield, and R.E. Anderson (editors). Retinal Degenerative Diseases. Plenum Press (New York) 1997.

8. Hollyfield, J.G., R.E. Anderson, and M.M. LaVail (editors). Retinal Degenerations. Clinical and Laboratory Manifestations. Plenum Press (New York) 1999.

9. Anderson, R.E., J.G. Hollyfield, and M.M. LaVail (editors). New Insights into Retinal Degenerative Diseases. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers (New York) 2001. In Press.

10. LaVail, M.M., J.G. Hollyfield, and R.E. Anderson (editors). Retinal Degenerations: Mechanisms and Experimental Therapy. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers (New York) 2003.

11. Hollyfield, J.G., R.E. Anderson, and M.M. LaVail (editors). Retinal Degenerations. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers (New York) 2005.

12. Anderson, R.E., M.M. LaVail, and J.G. Hollyfield (editors). Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, Vol. 613, Recent Advances in Retinal Degeneration. Springer (New York) 2008.

13. Anderson, R.E., M.M. LaVail, and J.G. Hollyfield (editors). Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, Vol. 664, Retinal Degenerative Diseases: Laboratory and Therapeutic Investigations. Springer (New York) 2010.

14. LaVail, M.M., J.D. Ash, R.E. Anderson, J.G. Hollyfield and C. Grimm (editors). Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, Vol. 773, Retinal Degenerative Diseases: Mechanisms and Experimental Therapy. Springer (New York) 2012.

15. Ash, J.D., J.G. Hollyfield, M.M. LaVail, R.E. Anderson, C. Bowes Rickman, and C. Grimm (editors). Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, Vol. 801, Retinal Degenerative Diseases. Springer (New York) 2014.

16. C. Bowes Rickman, M.M. LaVail, R.E. Anderson, C. Grimm, J.G. Hollyfield, and J.D. Ash (editors). Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, Vol. 854, Retinal Degenerative Diseases – Mechanisms and Experimental Therapy Springer (New York) 2016.

17. Ash, J.D., J.G. Hollyfield, M.M. LaVail, R.E. Anderson, C. Bowes Rickman, and C. Grimm (editors). Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, Vol. 801, Retinal Degenerative Diseases. Springer (New York) 2018.

18. C. Bowes Rickman, M.M. LaVail, R.E. Anderson, C. Grimm, J.G. Hollyfield, and J.D. Ash (editors). Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, Retinal Degenerative Diseases, Springer (New York), 2019.