More information regarding specific research programs can be accessed in the Directory listings for individual ERI faculty.
A healthy cornea is transparent because it has a constant thickness that is maintained by a precise balance between the amount of fluid that leaks into the tissue and the amount that is pumped out. The rates of leak and pump are controlled by the structure and metabolism of the endothelial cells that separate the cornea from the aqueous humor. Studies of the mechanisms regulating the pump rate and energy supply may permit restoration of transparency in corneas made opaque by disease and better preservation of corneas stored for transplant surgery.
Glaucoma is typically characterized by an elevation of intraocular pressure caused by a buildup of aqueous humor resulting in damage to the optic nerve and subsequent loss of vision. Current research in the institute is concerned with how increased intraocular pressure can cause the death of retinal ganglion cells.
Lens Transparency and Cataract
The lens of the eye resides behind the iris and participates with the cornea in focusing light on the retina. Although a normal lens is perfectly clear, the lens may lose its transparency as a result of aging or certain diseases such as diabetes. This condition, known as cataract, is a leading cause of blindness worldwide. Research in the institute is aimed at understanding the basic mechanisms that maintain transparency in the lens and determining the conditions that may predispose the lens to the formation of cataract. Biochemical, biophysical and molecular biological studies are conducted on lens metabolism and lens proteins, lipids and DNA, together with testing of experimental models of cataract and potential anti-cataract agents.
Diabetic Complications of the Eye
Among the diabetic complications of the eye are cataract formation and diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy is characterized by abnormal blood vessel formation. This can lead to retinal detachment and loss of vision. Research at the institute has resulted in new surgical techniques and pharmacologic agents for treatment of diabetic retinopathy, some of which are currently being evaluated in clinical trials. To determine the pathophysiology of these conditions, the cellular characteristics and their changes are being studied in human lens and retinal pigment epithelia cells grown in tissue cultures in the presence of high sugar concentrations. Pharmacological agents that are known to ameliorate diabetes-induced changes in animal models are being investigated in these human cells.
The retina is a very active tissue whose health depends on a continuous, adequate supply of nutrients and oxygen. Studies focus on the metabolic needs of specific retinal cells in darkness and in light, the enzymes involved in these activities and the potential consequences of impairments in oxygen and nutrient supply. Following the absorption of light by the visual pigment molecules in photoreceptor cells, a cascade of events is initiated leading to activation of the cell. Experiments focus on several of the enzymes involved in this activation process and on the nature of the second messenger molecules and their regulations.
Excessive and prolonged light exposure can lead to damage to photoreceptor cells and pigment epithelial cells of the retina. Current research attempts to understand the cellular mechanisms leading to light-induced photoreceptor cell damage and how this damage can be prevented.
Inherited Eye Diseases
Inherited eye diseases are among the major causes of blindness. These include glaucoma, cataract and a number of retinal disorders. Blindness in premature infants also involves retinal abnormalities that are clinically similar to those associated with genetic diseases. A major focus of research in this area is to understand the genetic basis of the blinding retinal diseases by defining the chromosomal location and characterization of the defective genes responsible for these disorders at the DNA level. Sophisticated molecular biology techniques are being employed to achieve these goals.
Blindness in Premature Infants
Abnormal vascular changes in the retina are seen in almost all premature infants, but only about 15% of these infants develop retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), which can lead to retinal detachment and blindness. Current therapy for ROP is laser treatment to prevent these vascular changes. Research at the Institute in collaboration with Beaumont ophthalmologists is focused on developing pharmacologic agents and new surgical techniques to treat ROP.