Vision quest

Following $2 million reboot, OU/OUWB eye research program sees big things ahead

An image of Dr. Al-Shawbrawey with students

OUWB medical students Min Kim and Suhani Gupta take a break during research to chat with Mohamed Al-Shabrawey, M.D., founding director of the ERC, director of the ERI, professor in the Department of Foundational Medical Studies, ERI, and V. Everett Kinsey Endowed Professor. (Photo by Rob Hall)


icon of a calendarOct. 7, 2022

icon of a pencilBy Andrew Dietderich

Share this story

From new flooring to ultra-powerful microscopes, state-of-the-art imaging equipment and more, the Oakland University/OUWB eye research lab might seem unrecognizable to anyone who hasn’t visited it recently.

And that’s a good thing, says Mohamed Al-Shabrawey, M.D., lab director.

The reason?

After spending about $2 million to add people and equipment — and giving the whole space a general refresh — the OU/OUWB vision research program is ready to level up in terms of building international and national recognition, securing grant funding, and more.

“We’ve planted the seeds for many great things to come,” says Al-Shawbrawey.

“I feel very optimistic.”

Eye research at OU/OUWB

Today, investigators at the OU/OUWB eye lab conduct full-time research that includes, but is not limited to, diabetic retinopathy, retinopathy of prematurity, retinal degenerative diseases, and age-related macular degeneration.

The lab’s lineage can be traced to 1968, when OU’s Eye Research Institute (ERI) was founded by V. Everett Kinsey, M.D., and Venkat N. Reddy, M.D. It began as a 10,000-square-foot facility funded by a National Institutes of Health Construction Grant.

Since then, the ERI continually has evolved, bolstered along the way by several key milestones. In 1984, for example, the ERI was recognized as a center of excellence in vision research with receipt of a Core Vision grant from the National Eye Institute. This helped the ERI expand via creation of staffed core facilities in electron microscopy and tissue culture. (See graphic for timeline.)

Another big milestone occurred last year, when OUWB founded the Eye Research Center (ERC) to further support the mission of the ERI and provide additional resources to promote translational research and expand vision research at Oakland University.

On Aug. 1, 2021, Al-Shabrawey began in his roles as founding director of the ERC, director of the ERI, professor in the Department of Foundational Medical Studies, ERI, and V. Everett Kinsey Endowed Professor.

“The goal of the new ERC and ERI is to conduct state-of-the-art research in vision sciences and ophthalmology to enhance the understanding of fundamental process in ocular tissue that lead to eye diseases,” according to a director’s message from Al-Shabrawey on the ERC website.

One of the first tasks Al-Shabrawey tackled was securing joint appointments (OU and OUWB) for all faculty. It was just one of many changes he’s overseen.

An image of a timeline of the ERI ERC

A timeline of the ERI-ERC at Oakland University/OUWB. (Click to open larger in new tab.)

Big plans

“My goals were not only to innovate, but recruit people, start discussions and educate people about the (ERC), promote recognition by reaching people nationally and internationally, promote grant application, and grow the graduate program,” he says.

With funding from OUWB, OU, and grants, about $2 million was spent on the physical lab space, equipment, and hiring new faculty and staff.

It started with a basic makeover. Outdated signage was removed. The walls were given a fresh coat of paint. New flooring was installed. As recent as August, the conference room was in the process of being modernized — gone are the dusty old books that once lined the walls.

It’s an ongoing process, says Al-Shabrawey. Walls and doors for some offices are yet to be added and removed. A new way to honor and recognize the university’s history of eye research is in the works.

Those aren’t the only physical changes.

Research equipment has been reorganized and added to what are now five primary modules spread out over the lab’s space. The modules are: cell and molecular biology support; pediatric retinal research lab; in vivo imaging; retinal function assessment; and microscopy.

The reorganized and updated microscopy module exemplifies the kind of changes that have taken place under Al-Shabrawey’s leadership. It now contains state-of-the-art widefield, confocal, and transmission electron microscopes, among other things.

Laura Gunther, Ph.D., digital research associate, was hired to run the microscopy module.

“We’re really equipped now to do some nice, high-quality imaging for the department,” she says.

Further, they’re the kind of exciting changes that drew her to the program.

“I came from Penn State and was trained on a lot of high-resolution microscopy techniques,” she says. “To be able to bring that here and just build that in this department is pretty cool.”

Gunther is just one of many new people that have created a palpable buzz of excitement. Several post-docs are working in the lab. The number of graduate students has increased from one to five. Graduate students represent “the spirit of any research program,” says Al-Shabrawey. They also can help secure funding.

“You cannot apply for NIH training grants unless you have a strong graduate program and a strong portfolio in mentorship,” he says.

That’s where some of the other students working in the lab come in.

The number of OUWB medical students in the lab has increased from five to 12. They are using the lab for research connected with their Embark projects. Embark is a required scholarly concentration program at OUWB that provides a mentored introduction to research and scholarship. The four-year longitudinal curriculum consists of structured coursework in research design and implementation, compliance training, research communication, and scholarly presentation, with protected time to develop mentored projects in a wide-range of community and health-related settings.

Other students are in the lab, as well.

For example, the ERI Summer Undergraduate Program in Eye Research (SUPER) was reestablished this past summer with four students.

“One of our primary missions is mentorship and to prepare our students and engage them in research,” says Al-Shabrawey.

“If we talk about medical students, for example, one must understand the importance of basic research in answering specific scientific questions that can lead to treatment, and expose them to understanding the pathophysiology of specific diseases.”

Al-Shabrawey says he expects the number of people doing research in the lab to grow.

That’s because he expects to soon hire another faculty member who will bring additional students.

With the increase in number of people working in the lab, Al-Shabrawey says that will naturally work toward his goal of creating awareness of the work being done.

“Recognition is very important,” he says.

‘If you build it…’

Headshot of Kenneth Mitton

Kenneth Mitton, Ph.D., associate professor of Biomedical Science at Oakland University, has been with the school and ERI since 2001.

He started the Control of Gene Expressions Lab and does work in the Pediatric Retinal Research Lab (PRRL), which he helped design more than 10 years ago when the ERI received funding for the PRRL from the Vision Research ROPARD Foundation.

The kind of work he’s doing demonstrates the promise of what can come out of the OU/OUWB eye research efforts.

For example, he’s working on development of “high-throughput, low-cost targeted DNA-sequencing panels for rare inherited retinal diseases.” In short, the idea is to work with local health care providers to sequence genes from as many people as possible with diseases like familial exudative vitreoretinopathy, Norrie disease, and retinoschisis.

“If we can get people to consent and let us sequence their DNA, we can discover the mutations that cause those diseases,” says Mitton. “They get to know that and we learn more about how things work in the retina.”

Overall, Mitton says the changes that he’s seen in the ERI-ERC in just the last year are “very encouraging.”

“We’ve had a lot of renovations that have been good here,” he says. “Time was taken to clean out old labs, which made room for some new things.”

Mitton says they’re exactly the kind of changes that can help further OU and OUWB’s work in the field of vision research.

“It’s kind of like that movie ‘Field of Dreams’…if you build it, they will come,” he says.  

Share this story