TAG: "Eye care"

Venus flytraps, venom and vision


UC Irvine chemist’s offbeat interests have led to a potentially eyesight-saving discovery.

UC Irvine chemist Rachel Martin holds the eyepiece of a telescope she built. (Photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine)

UC Irvine chemist Rachel Martin holds the eyepiece of a telescope she built.

Rachel Martin is a thoughtful, reserved UC Irvine chemist who happens to love venom, carnivorous plants and telescopes. The last offers a clue to her latest research, which could lead to a breakthrough in treatments for epidemic blindness due to cataracts.

“I’ve been interested in optics since I was a graduate student,” she says, pulling a beautiful, hand-carved brass telescope from a box on a shelf above her desk. It’s engraved with a Leonardo da Vinci motto, “saper vedere,” which means “knowing how to see.” That was her mechanical instrumentation instructor’s motto, and she made the scope herself as a diversion from long nights earning her Ph.D. at Yale University.

Martin and her own students recently snared the December cover of the journal Structure with their trailblazing findings on how cataracts form at the molecular level. They discovered that so-called “chaperone” proteins grab onto mutant crystallin proteins in our eyes and hang on for dear life, stopping them from clumping together.

The problem is that human eyes have a finite number of these valuable chaperones. Once they’re used up, the mutant or damaged proteins begin to aggregate and cloud our vision. Now that her group has exposed the nuts and bolts of cataract creation and prevention, Martin is hopeful that organic chemists can latch onto the work and replicate the chaperone process via medicated eye solutions or artificial lenses.

“That’s the dream, and this is a big step,” says the associate professor of chemistry. “Understanding the molecular mechanism of what goes wrong in the eye that causes a cataract could lead to the development of better treatment options.”

Martin, 37, arrived at UC Irvine in 2005 to set up her own laboratory. Her husband, Carter Butts, is a UC Irvine sociology professor. A native of Phoenix, she loves California. “I like being near the ocean,” she says, “and I like the culture and the people.”

Studying cataracts was part of her job search proposal; despite her own fine eyesight, she’s keenly aware of global blindness. Nearly 20 million people worldwide have lost their sight due to cataracts. While individuals with proper medical care can have corrective surgery, the World Health Organization has found that millions in China, India, Southeast Asia, Eastern Mediterranean nations and elsewhere suffer major vision loss because they don’t have access to laser surgery or other options.

The medical potential is a powerful motivator, but Martin says it was pure chemistry – in this case a keen interest in how transparency works – that led her to investigate eye lenses. “Most things are not transparent; this is a really unusual property,” she notes.

But Martin became a chemist for different reasons. “I was absolutely fascinated by venom,” she says. “I grew up catching scorpions and centipedes and things like that.”

An “awesome” high school chemistry teacher set her on her career path, and she studies venom – as well as cataracts – to this day.

Martin is quick to praise two of her group members for working especially long hours and making major contributions to the latest findings: Carolyn Kingsley and William Brubaker. Her students also make their own precise research instruments – one of the reasons she wins praise from others.

“The remarkable thing about professor Martin’s work is that she combines the most advanced techniques in molecular biology and instrument-based chemical physics in the same lab,” says Kenneth Janda, dean of the School of Physical Sciences and a fellow chemist. “She’s remarkably broad in her talent, and her students have a unique opportunity to work in two disciplines for the same project.”

Her group is continuing the research on cataract proteins. “The next phase is to understand more about the alpha crystallin – the chaperone protein that clings onto the damaged crystallin,” Martin says.

These days, in addition to poring over data, she breeds rare plants – particularly protein-hungry ones such as Venus flytraps. With their delicate white flowers, they may be prettier than scorpions, but they share the same appetite.

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Chemists crack code of cataract creation


Findings by UC Irvine, German researchers could aid in saving sight of millions.

Cover of Structure magazineGroundbreaking new findings by UC Irvine and German chemists about how cataracts form could be used to help prevent the world’s leading cause of blindness, which currently affects nearly 20 million people worldwide.  (PDF)

“That’s the dream, and this is a big step,” said Rachel Martin, UC Irvine associate professor of chemistry and co-author of a paper featured on the December cover of the journal Structure. “Understanding the molecular mechanism of what goes wrong in the eye that leads to a cataract could lead to the development of better treatment options, including more sophisticated artificial lenses and drugs.”

It has long been known that human eyes have a powerful ability to focus because of three kinds of crystallin proteins in their lenses, maintaining transparency via a delicate balance of both repelling and attracting light. Two types of crystallin are structural, but the third – dubbed a “chaperone” – keeps the others from clumping into cataracts if they’re modified by genetic mutation, ultraviolet light or chemical damage.

The UC Irvine team painstakingly explored and identified the structures of the normal proteins and a genetic mutation known to cause cataracts in young children. They found that the chaperone proteins bind far more strongly to the mutated proteins in an effort to keep the lens clear. One major problem: Every human eye contains a finite number of the helpful proteins. Once they’re used up, the researchers learned, weakened ones quickly begin to aggregate and form blinding cataracts.

Now that this mechanism has been mapped at the molecular level, the team is hopeful that organic chemists can create sight-saving treatments to prevent such aggregation.

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Donor age not a factor in most corneal transplants


Study shows “most corneal transplants have remarkable longevity regardless of donor age.”

The cornea is the clear window that allows light into the eye and helps focus it. Scarring, swelling or other damage to the cornea can lead to blurred vision. Such damage can occur after injuries or infections, from inherited conditions, or as a complication of cataract surgery.

The cornea is the clear window that allows light into the eye and helps focus it. Scarring, swelling or other damage to the cornea can lead to blurred vision. Such damage can occur after injuries or infections, from inherited conditions, or as a complication of cataract surgery.

Ten years after a transplant, a cornea from a 71-year-old donor is likely to remain as healthy as a cornea from a donor half that age, and corneas from donors over 71 perform slightly less well but still remain healthy for most transplant recipients, according to a study funded by the National Eye Institute (NEI) and led by the UC Davis Health System Eye Center and the University of Cincinnati Eye Institute.

The results were published online in Ophthalmology on Nov. 15, and presented on the same day in New Orleans at a joint meeting of the Eye Bank Association of America and the Cornea Society.

The Cornea Donor Study found that 10-year success rates remained steady at 75 percent for corneal transplants from donors 34 to 71 years old. It also found slightly higher success rates for donors under 34, and somewhat lower rates for donors over 71.

In the U.S., three-fourths of cornea donors are within the 34 to 71 age range, with one-third of donors at the upper end of the range, from 61 to 70 years old. When the study began in 2000, many surgeons would not accept corneas from donors over 65.

“The findings clearly demonstrate that most corneal transplants have remarkable longevity regardless of donor age,” said Mark Mannis, chair of ophthalmology and vision sciences, director of UC Davis Health System’s Eye Center and co-chair of the study. “The majority of patients continued to do well after 10 years, even those who received corneas from the oldest donors.”

The Corneal Donor Study  “supports continued expansion of the corneal donor pool beyond age 65,” said study co-chair Edward J. Holland, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Cincinnati and director of the Cornea Service at the Cincinnati Eye Institute.

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Free health care clinic


UCLA health care staff help treat thousands at Care Harbor clinic.

A team of more than 200 UCLA health professionals helped staff a free health care clinic last week that provided vital basic medical services to approximately 3,000 uninsured and underserved people in Los Angeles.

They were among the nearly 3,000 medical and general volunteers at Care Harbor’s annual urban health clinic — held Oct. 31 through Nov. 3 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena just south of downtown Los Angeles — who provided more than 5,700 medical, dental and vision exams.

“To me it’s part of the mission of being a physician to care for people,” said Dr. Colin McCannel, a UCLA ophthalmologist. ” It’s part of what I should be doing so doing it makes me feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to.”

There were 16 volunteers from UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute, who conducted eye exams, donated 10 free cataract surgeries and prescribed free eye glasses. UCLA’s team also included seven doctors from family medicine, 17 general internists, and one physician from internal medicine/pediatrics, as well as some specialists and medical students.

The Care Harbor clinic provides a wide range of services for people who lack the means to get medical care on a regular basis. The health professionals screened for diabetes and hypertension, administered immunizations, offered mental health counseling and provided teeth cleanings, among many other basic services. For those patients who had more severe problems or conditions that required longer term care, the volunteers provided referrals to followup services.

The UCLA School of Dentistry staffed 10 dental chairs providing oral hygiene services for hundreds of patients.

“Service is part of the core missions and I want to take every opportunity I can to give back,” said Dr. Edmond Hewlett, a professor in the school of dentistry.

In addition to the doctors, UCLA volunteers included nearly 80 nurses from Ronald Reagan UCLA and Santa Monica medical centers; six clinical lab scientists and a pathologist from the department of pathology who interpreted the pap smears; and six nurse practitioners.

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NIH awards $1.7M to neuroscientist for visual perception research


Work by UC Riverside professor holds promise of new therapies for people with low vision.

Aaron Seitz, UC Riverside

Aaron Seitz, UC Riverside

A UC Riverside neuroscientist has been awarded a five-year, $1.7 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to continue groundbreaking research that may lead to new therapies for individuals with amblyopia (lazy eye), dry macular degeneration and cataracts.

Research by Aaron Seitz, associate professor of psychology, already is influencing what scientists know about perceptual learning as it relates to low vision. Perceptual learning – a field of research that emerged about 30 years ago – is important to understanding brain processes, mechanisms of learning, the development of training techniques for tasks requiring specialized sensory skills, and the development of clinical applications to rehabilitate patients with sensory deficits.

His NIH research grant, “Integrating Perceptual Learning Approaches into Effective Therapies for Low Vision,” will support further study of how different mechanisms of perceptual learning interact, and will explore better treatment options for individuals with visual defects. This integrated approach into understanding brain plasticity — how the brain changes physically, chemically and functionally due to aging, injury or disease — and perceptual learning so far has been lacking in neuroscience research.

“Science research typically examines isolated processes,” he said. “Taking a broader, integrated view requires totally different tools. We need to develop a new model that combines multiple processes or mechanisms for perceptual learning. With this grant I hope we will better understand how these mechanisms can be tuned to train the brain to be more effective.”

Earlier research by Seitz challenged the popular assumption that adults learn only by paying attention to something. He found that pairing a visual stimulus with a reward is enough to cause learning, even when an individual is unaware of the stimulus paired with the reward.

“I’m truly excited about this research,” said Seitz, who joined the UCR faculty in 2008. “The science is fascinating and has tremendous potential to help people.”

Working with Dr. Stacy Pineles at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA, Dr. Pinakin Davey at the College of Optometry at Western University College of Health Sciences in Pomona and Peggy Seriès at the Institute for Adaptive and Neural Computation at University of Edinburgh, Seitz hopes to develop new therapies involving brain training to improve vision of individuals with amblyopia (lazy eye), dry macular degeneration and cataracts.

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$6.4M grant funds glaucoma study in African Americans


Study focuses on genetics of the disease in people of African descent.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma

A study led by Robert N. Weinreb, chairman and Distinguished Professor of Ophthalmology at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, has received a $6.4 million, 5-year grant from the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, to elucidate the genetics of glaucoma in persons of African descent.

Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in African Americans. It is four to five times more likely to occur in persons of African descent, and up to 15 times more likely to cause meaningful visual impairment in this group compared to those of European descent.

The overall goal of the study, “ADAGES III: contribution of genotype to glaucoma phenotype in African-Americans,” is to identify glaucoma genes in this high-risk, minority population, particularly persons who have rapidly worsening vision. Weinreb has teamed with Jerry Rotter, M.D., Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics, Medicine and Human Genetics at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, a renowned genetics expert, to identify relevant genes, develop predictive models for glaucoma diagnosis and progression and discover new drug targets for therapies to reduce the visual impact of glaucoma blindness.

Glaucoma results in vision loss due to damage to the optic nerve, which is irreversible if undetected or untreated.  The most common form of glaucoma is called primary open angle glaucoma (POAG). The number of persons with diagnosed POAG in the United States is expected to be more 3.3 million by 2020, with millions more undiagnosed.  While glaucoma affects all races, persons of African descent are disproportionately affected.

“The lack of understanding about the cause of this disease impedes our ability to identify and treat it early in its development,” said Weinreb, who is also director of the Shiley Eye Center, part of the UC San Diego Health System. “Evidence of genetic contribution in the pathogenesis of POAG is well established. Since POAG tends to run in families, it is critical to identify the genetic basis of the disease in order to develop effective therapies for early intervention.”

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New UC Berkeley eye clinic to target youth


Rise in nearsightedness attributed partly to overuse of handheld electronics.

oo much time spent with handheld electronics could increase the risk of nearsightedness especially among children.

Too much time spent with handheld electronics could increase the risk of nearsightedness especially among children.

Eye doctors at the University of California, Berkeley, are opening a new clinic to help combat an alarming rise in myopia, or nearsightedness, which they attribute partly to the overuse of handheld electronics.

“There are a number of factors involved in the increase of myopia, but I have no doubt that changes in lifestyle over the past several decades that include more time spent indoors and the early use of handheld computers play a big role,” said Dr. Maria Liu, head of the new Myopia Control Clinic at UC Berkeley’s School of Optometry. “The problem with smartphones and iPads is that kids often hold them closer to their eyes than they would a book, and they can become totally absorbed for hours at a time. The working distance for handheld devices is much closer than it is for laptops and TV.”

Liu noted that young children are particularly vulnerable because their eyes are still developing. She added that, in particular, nearsighted children under 10 could benefit most from early intervention.

Admittedly, the overuse of handheld electronics by young children is not the only culprit for the rise in myopia. It may be that myopia is simply a byproduct of modern, urban life, said the researchers, who noted that nearsightedness rates are relatively low in agricultural regions and nations. High rates of myopia among children in East Asian countries have been attributed to long hours spent reading indoors.

A study funded by the National Eye Institute, or NEI, found that the prevalence of myopia increased 66 percent for those aged 12 to 54 years in the United States between 1971-1972 and 1999-2004.

Notably, NEI data shows that severe myopia was twice as prevalent among younger adults as for the elderly. For those aged 20 to 39, 7.4 percent had severe myopia compared with 3.1 percent for those 60 and older.

The goal of UC Berkeley’s new Myopia Control Clinic, which will operate Thursdays and Sundays, is to slow down the progression of myopia while it is still in its early phase of development. In addition to providing conventional glasses to correct myopia, doctors will be offering treatments for controlling the condition’s progression, ranging from special contact lenses to prescription eye drops.

“The early onset of myopia can have effects beyond corrective lenses,” said Liu. “The earlier the myopia starts, the longer the disorder has to develop into something more severe. It’s relatively rare, but in pathological myopia, the excessive elongation of the eyeball dramatically increases the risk for retinal detachment, growth of abnormal blood vessels and other complications, which can lead to irreversible vision loss.”

Patients can get more information or schedule appointments at the myopia clinic by calling (510) 642-2020, or by sending an email to myopiacontrol@gmail.com.

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A vision realized


New home of UC Irvine’s Gavin Herbert Eye Institute has been years in the making.

The Gavin Herbert Eye Institute “offers patients from both the local community and around the world access to clinically advanced eye care from internationally renowned ophthalmologists in a thoughtfully planned physical environment,” says UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake. (Photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine)

The Gavin Herbert Eye Institute “offers patients from both the local community and around the world access to clinically advanced eye care from internationally renowned ophthalmologists in a thoughtfully planned physical environment,” says UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake.

When the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute opens its new 70,000-square-foot home on the UC Irvine campus in September, the community will gain access to a leading-edge center for the preservation of sight, with services ranging from eyeglass fittings to refractive surgeries to clinical trials of new therapies.

The comprehensive eye health institute, which is part of UC Irvine Health, includes 34 patient exam rooms with the latest in optical equipment, an optical shop, faculty offices and conference space. A dedicated pediatric area has play areas, video entertainment screens, kid-friendly restrooms and other features to make the experience more comfortable for the youngest patients, many with special needs. The interior design reflects recommendations from the Braille Institute that make it easier for low-vision patients to navigate around the building.

“This institute offers patients from both the local community and around the world access to clinically advanced eye care from internationally renowned ophthalmologists in a thoughtfully planned physical environment,” says UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake. “The Gavin Herbert Eye Institute is strategically located within walking distance of two major biomedical research centers and at the epicenter of the largest concentration of eye technology companies in the world. It’s well positioned to pursue its ambitious research goal of ending blindness by 2020.”

Ten Gavin Herbert Eye Institute physicians grace Best Doctors Inc.’s list of “Best Doctors in America,” including the institute’s founding director, Dr. Roger Steinert. An internationally recognized authority on cataract, cornea and refractive surgery, he is UC Irvine’s Irving H. Leopold Chair in Ophthalmology and a professor of both ophthalmology and biomedical engineering.

“I am fortunate to lead a talented team of 24 clinicians and researchers who are dedicated to making life better for people with vision issues,” Steinert says. “The Gavin Herbert Eye Institute has attracted the best and the brightest – ophthalmologists who are eager to be part of an institute that works at the edge of science, collaborating with medical peers and eye industry professionals to develop innovative technologies and clinical practices that improve sight. It’s rewarding to be able to see our patients from the local community and around the globe benefit from these advances.”

Gavin Herbert Eye Institute physicians are known for pioneering such medical procedures as refractive and corneal transplant surgery performed with femtosecond lasers and next-generation medical therapies for age-related macular degeneration. Research teams are investigating such advanced treatments as stem cell therapies to preserve and restore sight for individuals with retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration; infused contact lenses that replace eye drops to treat cystinosis; and a vaccine for ocular herpes, a leading cause of blindness.

The $39 million building is the first on the UC Irvine campus to be funded entirely through local corporate, foundation and individual philanthropic gifts; no government funding was required.

James V. “Jim” Mazzo, an operating partner with Newport Beach-based Versant Ventures and a UC Irvine Foundation trustee, led the very successful community campaign. The initial naming gift came in 2007 from Gavin Herbert, founder and chairman emeritus of Allergan Inc.; his wife, Ninetta; and his mother, Josephine Herbert Gleis.

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Study reveals new approach to remedying childhood visual disorders


UC Irvine, UCLA researchers identify key inhibitory neurons critical for vision development.

Xiangmin Xu, UC Irvine

Xiangmin Xu, UC Irvine

By discovering the role of key neurons that mediate an important part of vision development, UC Irvine and UCLA neurobiologists have revealed a new approach to correcting visual disorders in children who suffer from early cataracts or amblyopia, also known as lazy eye.

Such youngsters can have permanent defects in vision, even after surgery to remove cataracts or correct lazy eye. These flaws are often a result of improper brain development due to visual deprivation during childhood. In contrast, when cataracts in adults are surgically corrected, normal vision is usually restored.

Xiangmin Xu, assistant professor of anatomy & neurobiology at UC Irvine, and Josh Trachtenberg, associate professor of neurobiology at UCLA, found that this phenomenon is caused by a specific class of inhibitory neurons that control the time window, or “critical period,” in early vision development, generally before age 7. The results of their study appeared online Aug. 25 in Nature.

The researchers discovered that improper functioning of these key neurons during the critical period of development is responsible for these vision defects. Additionally, in tests on mice, they used an experimental drug compound to reopen this critical-period window and treat the neuronal defects associated with temporary loss of vision in one eye during early development.

Their work suggests that drugs targeted to the critical period-regulating neurons can correct central vision disorders in children who’ve suffered from amblyopia or early cataracts.

“The specific type of neurons that mediate the critical-period window during childhood development have not been well understood until now,” Xu said. “Our breakthrough outlines a new path for treatments that can restore normal vision in children who have had early vision disorders.”

Nicholas Olivas and Taruna Ikrar of UC Irvine and Sandra Kuhlman and Elaine Tring of UCLA contributed to the study, which received support from the National Eye Institute (grant EY016052) and the National Institute for Neurological Disorders & Stroke (grant NS078434).

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Discovery Eye Foundation makes $3M gift to Gavin Herbert Eye Institute


Award supports completion of campus home for UC Irvine Health facility, research.

Roger Steinert, UC Irvine

Roger Steinert, UC Irvine

The Discovery Eye Foundation – a Los Angeles-based organization that supports research, education, advocacy and treatment related to sight-threatening eye diseases – has awarded $3 million to the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, a part of UC Irvine Health. The gift provides $2 million to complete the UC Irvine campus facility, which opens in September, and $1 million to establish the Discovery Center for Eye Research within it.

“The goal of the building donation is to establish a home for this world-class eye institute – a place where ongoing research funded by the Discovery Eye Foundation will be translated into sight-saving treatments,” said Jack Schoellerman, chairman of the foundation board.

The Discovery Center for Eye Research is a novel collaboration between a private entity, the Discovery Eye Foundation, and the university-based Gavin Herbert Eye Institute. Schoellerman will serve as chair of the center, helping to define its role in sustaining current investigations and kick-starting promising new research. The center also plans to launch ophthalmology conferences at which research findings can be shared and new ideas stimulated.

“The Discovery Eye Foundation has funded the progress of many patient-oriented Gavin Herbert Eye Institute research programs, from a potential cure for ocular herpes to a proposed stem cell treatment for age-related macular degeneration,” said Dr. Roger Steinert, founding director of the institute. “We are grateful to the foundation for its generous investment in the future of eye health and look forward to exploring what we can accomplish together through the Discovery Center for Eye Research.”

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Guide to buying sunglasses


Berkeley Wellness offers tips for what to look for in sunglasses.

Woman wearing sunglassesMany people choose sunglasses by how they look and feel. But the most important feature to consider is how well they shield your eyes from ultraviolet rays (high-frequency invisible energy emitted by the sun), as well as blue light (high-frequency visible light).

Chronic ultraviolet (UV) exposure is implicated in a range of eye conditions, including cataracts, benign growths on the surface of the eye, skin cancer on the eyelid and around the eyes and even melanoma of the eye itself. Blue light is particularly damaging to internal eye tissues and over time may permanently damage the retina, leading to macular degeneration.

Sun damage is cumulative, so the more time you spend outdoors with your eyes unprotected, the greater your lifetime risk. The good news is that it’s not hard to find affordable sunglasses that are fashion-forward and protective.

Read tips from Berkeley Wellness.

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Water flow in eye cells essential to lens health


UC Irvine study provides new insights into molecular mechanisms that can lead to cataracts.

CorneaBy understanding how water flows in and out of eye lens cells, UC Irvine and Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers are providing new insights into the underlying molecular mechanisms that can lead to cataracts.

James Hall, professor of physiology & biophysics, and colleagues identified how two proteins – aquaporin zero and calmodulin – interact to throw a molecular switch that controls the flow of water through the cell membrane, working much like a gate valve in a plumbing fixture.

Proper hydration of the membrane helps assure good cell health, and any disruption in this flow or its regulation results in cataract formation.

“We know that defects in aquaporin zero lead to congenital cataracts. Our study makes a step toward understanding how cataracts form and, we hope, learning how to prevent or delay them,” said Hall. He teamed with HHMI’s Tamir Gonen to lead the study, which appears online in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

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