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Steven J. Fliesler, PhD

Ophthalmology researcher Steven J. Fliesler, PhD, is learning how exposure to blasts, such as shock waves from improvised explosive devices, can slowly damage the retina.

UB-VA Collaborations Advance Biomedical Research, Training

Published November 11, 2014

University at Buffalo physician-scientists are engaged in 150 cutting-edge biomedical science research projects through the Veterans Affairs Western New York Healthcare System.

“Only with the collaboration of researchers at UB and the Buffalo VA Medical Center will we be able to improve the health care of veterans and the community at large.”
James W. Lohr, MD
Professor of medicine; Acting associate chief of staff for research and development, Buffalo VA Medical Center

At the Buffalo VA Medical Center, 115 faculty members from the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences research an array of topics, supported by grants totaling $4.5 million each year.

As one of several teaching hospitals affiliated with the medical school, the center also provides a valuable clinical and research training site for UB medical students, residents and fellows.

Diverse Research Aims to Improve Treatment

“Only with the collaboration of researchers at UB and the Buffalo VA will we be able to improve the health care of veterans and the community at large,” says James W. Lohr, MD, professor of medicine at UB and acting associate chief of staff for research and development at the medical center.

He notes that a major emphasis has been clinical and translational research that can lead to new or improved treatments.

Diverse collaborative projects encompass basic laboratory research, clinical trials with patients and population studies that draw from the hospital’s extensive electronic medical records database.

For example, researchers are exploring:

  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • pneumonia and other infectious diseases
  • chronic kidney disease
  • coronary artery disease
  • post-traumatic stress disorders
  • geriatrics
  • vitamin D deficiency
  • vascular surgery
  • cancer therapy

Joint UB-VA research has a robust history in Buffalo, Lohr says.

One of the oldest and best known collaborations led to the implantable cardiac pacemaker when physicians at the Buffalo VA Medical Center teamed up with inventor Wilson Greatbatch, then a UB assistant professor of engineering, in the 1950s.

Understanding Retinal Damage From Blast Exposure

A more recent example is a new study by principal investigator Steven J. Fliesler, PhD, Meyer H. Riwchun Endowed Chair Professor of ophthalmology.

Also a research health scientist at the Buffalo VA Medical Center and director of its vision research center, Fliesler will explore the cause and prevention of retinal damage from exposure to blasts, such as shock waves from improvised explosive devices.

He received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Seeking Warning Signs, Prevention of Retinal Damage

“The idea is to first identify the basic biological mechanisms in the retina, or molecular signatures, that follow blast overpressure exposure and signify damage is occurring,” Fliesler explains. “It’s analogous to how miners used canaries to detect toxic gases in mine shafts as an advanced warning of danger.”

“Our hypothesis is that the damage to the retina after exposure to blast overpressure is preceded by a rise in free radicals and specific biomarkers associated with oxidative stress,” he explains.

So the researchers will look for an increase in the biomarkers known to occur with retinal damage and neuronal degeneration. In particular, they will assess the increase in free radicals and iron that accompany many types of retinal degeneration and traumatic brain injury.

The researchers then aim to develop and test compounds that could prevent or minimize such injuries prior to blast exposure.

“We are hopeful that by administering powerful antioxidants to soldiers before they go into combat, we might be able to prevent or minimize retinal damage,” Fliesler says.

Knowledge Gained Could Aid Veterans, Civilians

“Most reports about eye injuries from blast focus on immediate and overt trauma that requires surgical intervention,” Fliesler notes. “Little is known, however, about how injuries that are not overtly apparent affect the retina, especially because these injuries may take many weeks or months to manifest.”

“With thousands potentially being subjected to such injury-provoking conditions daily, this research addresses a significant, yet under-studied clinical care issue for active military personnel and veterans.”

The study also may benefit civilians who experience similar types of blast exposure in industrial settings.

Fliesler is conducting the study with a colleague from Emory University and the Atlanta VA Medical Center.

Also a professor of biochemistry, he co-directs the translational pilot studies program at the UB Clinical and Translational Research Center.