Our research scientists and ophthalmologist-clinician scientists are committed to the goal of improving diagnosis, treatment, and ultimately finding cures for diseases of the eye and visual system. The Vision Science Center at UW Medicine’s South Lake Union research facility provides collaborative opportunities, bringing together scientists from across departments to work on research that will lead to the discovery of next-generation tools for diagnosing, preventing, and treating all types of eye disease.
The Vision Science Center and the Karalis Johnson Retina Center support four pillars of research in its mission to eradicate retinal blindness: advanced optics imaging, computational ophthalmology, accelerating the therapeutic pipeline, and vision restoration research.
Advanced Imaging. 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.
Associate Professor Ram Sabesan, PhD and his lab use adaptive optics imaging borrowed from astronomy to fully correct the optics of the eye, and image the retina at the level of single cells. George and Martina Kren Endowed Chair of Ophthalmology Ricky Wang, PhD and his lab developed the now widely-used technique of optical coherence tomography angiography These two technologies are together advancing our ability to image the retina to single-cell resolution.
Computational Ophthalmology. The availability of huge datasets such as the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s IRIS registry allows C. Dan and Irene Hunter Endowed Professor Aaron Lee, MD and Klorfine Family Endowed Chair Cecilia Lee, MD 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.
Accelerating the therapeutic pipeline includes the work of Gordon and Joan Bergy Professor Jennifer Chao, MD, PhD. This lab is able to take blood samples from patients affected by retinal diseases to create patient-specific stem cells, which they can then grow into 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. This technique also has potential for transplantation – repairing damaged tissues with the patient’s own cells.
The work of Dr. Kathryn Pepple, Associate Professor of Ophthalmology, also accelerates the therapeutic pipeline, by characterizing animal models of ocular inflammatory disease which can be used for drug development.
Vision restoration describes methods to reintroduce light sensitivity to retinas blind from degeneration. Gene therapy approaches pioneered by Bishop Professor Jay Neitz, PhD and Ray Hill Chair Maureen Neitz, PhD have been shown to correct color blindness and have potential for correcting other forms of blindness. Research from the laboratory of Bucey Chair Russell Van Gelder, MD, PhD’s laboratory is using small molecules to ‘reanimate’ the remaining cells in the degenerated retina to restore light responsiveness.