Cecilia S. Lee, MD, MS and Aaron Lee, MD, MSc

In addition to its mission to provide the best possible patient care, Karalis Johnson Retina Center is also a cutting-edge research facility.  In its quest to eradicate retinal blindness, the Center has emphasized research in four ‘PILLAR’ areas: advanced optics imaging, computational ophthalmology, and accelerating the therapeutic pipeline, and vision restoration research.


The retina is the only visible component of the central nervous system outside of the human brain.  This tissue-paper thin structure is essential to normal vision.  Visualization of the retina has been central to diagnosis of retinal disease for over a century, but advances in digital optics and imaging allow unprecedented ability to detect and characterize retinal disease.  Research Assistant Professor Ram Sabesan, PhD and his lab use a technology called adaptive optics imaging (borrowed from astronomy) to fully correct the optics of the eye, and image the retina at the level of single cells. Doris and Jules Stein Professor of Ophthalmology Ricky Wang, PhD and his lab, advanced imaging invented the widely-used technique of optical coherence tomography angiography (OCTA).  These two technologies are now being fused, portending phenomenal advances in our ability to image the retina.  More information on these technologies is available at: Sabesan lab and Wang lab.


The second pillar of research involves computational ophthalmology.  The availability of huge datasets such as the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s IRIS registry allows Assistant Professors Aaron Lee, MD, MSc and Cecilia S. Lee, MD, MS to determine real-world outcomes of treatments and identify risk factors and trends in disease on an unparalleled scale.  Combined with machine learning approaches, we anticipate that ‘personalized precision retinal medicine’ will become a reality – finding the best possible treatment options for patients based on analysis of millions of similar cases.  Click here to read more about the Lee lab.


The third pillar of the Karalis Johnson Retina Center research framework – accelerating the therapeutic pipeline -- is work of Associate Professor Jennifer Chao, MD, PhD and Adjunct Professor Tom Reh, PhD. This group lab is able to take blood samples from patients affected by retinal diseases to create patient-specific stem cells, which they can then grow them in to small copies of the retina in the laboratory.  These cells can then be tested with available drugs or even nutritional supplements to look for agents that might slow or stop regeneration.  Such interventions can then be tested in the clinic with the sensitive imaging techniques of the first pillar to identify promising treatments.  Read more about Dr. Chao's work here, Dr. Reh's lab here and info about Dr. James B. Hurley's lab here.


The final pillar -- vision restoration -- describes methods to reintroduce light sensitivity to retinas blind from degeneration.  Gene therapy approaches pioneered by Bishop Professor Jay Neitz PhD and Grace Hill Professor Maureen Neitz, PhD have been shown to correct color blindness and have potential for correcting other forms of blindness.  And work from the laboratory of Bucey Chair Russ Van Gelder, MD, PhD’s laboratory is using small molecules to ‘reanimate’ the remaining cells in the degenerated retina to restore light responsiveness award.  For more details on these approaches click here for: Neitz labVan Gelder lab, Manookin lab, and Buhr lab.


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