Steven J. Fliesler, PhD

Research Director Steven J. Fliesler, PhD, helps coordinate the work of UB ophthalmology faculty who are advancing knowledge of retinal and corneal disease.

Prevent Blindness Grant Supports Innovative UB Vision Research

Published January 7, 2014

For the eighth year, the Department of Ophthalmology has received an unrestricted grant from Research to Prevent Blindness to support research exploring vision processes and disease, as well as faculty professional development.

“I look forward to the day when these research results will be translated into clinical therapies and cures that will improve or restore vision for those with visual disabilities and prevent vision loss.”
Steven J. Fliesler, PhD
Meyer H. Riwchun Endowed Chair Professor

This year’s $110,000 grant brings the total awarded to $900,000.

Supports Key Discoveries by UB Researchers

The grant primarily supports laboratory-based, translational and clinical research, including new projects and extensions of current projects.

In 2013, University at Buffalo ophthalmology researchers supported by these funds made several key discoveries, resulting in 13 publications in peer-reviewed journals, including Genetics, The Journal of Neuroscience, Molecular and Cellular Proteomics and PloS One.

Revealing a Protein’s Antioxidant Function

UB researchers found evidence that the interphotoreceptor retinoid-binding protein functions as an endogenous, potent antioxidant, protecting the outer retina from retinoid decomposition and oxidative stress.

The research team, led by Federico Gonzalez-Fernandez, MD, PhD, revealed the protein’s robust free radical-scavenging activity that strongly protects vitamin A from oxidative degradation. Gonzalez-Fernandez is the Ira Gile Ross and Elizabeth Pierce Olmsted Ross, MD Endowed Chair Professor of Ophthalmology.

Scientists believe the protein shuttles vitamin A, other retinoids essential for vision and other water-insoluble molecules between the neural retina and the retinal pigment epithelium.

Determining Cell Fate in Retinal Development

UB researchers, led by assistant professor Xiuqian Mu, MD, PhD, studied the role of a subclass of gene transcription factors, Onecut1 (Oc1) and Onecut2 (Oc2), in determining the fate of different retinal neurons during the early development of the retina. 

When the factors were deleted from mice, results show Oc1 and Oc2 function redundantly in regulating the formation of retinal horizontal cells, cone photoreceptors and ganglion cells.

The study provides further insight into the genetic pathways underlying the genesis of various retinal cell types. This knowledge may prove useful in designing novel, cell replacement-based therapies to fight both hereditary and acquired retinal diseases.

Understanding the Corneal Endothelial Barrier Function

The laboratory of Sangita Patel, MD, PhD, research assistant professor, investigated the barrier properties of the corneal endothelium, which regulates the cornea’s hydration status and is key to maintaining its transparency and normal refraction properties.

Studying permeability at both high and low monolayer densities, they found permeability increases only at the lowest cell densities, with concurrent disruption of tight junction complexes.   

Disruption of barrier integrity at the lowest cell densities corresponds to the range associated with clinical corneal edema, a swelling of the cornea caused by fluid retention.

Lecture Series, Travel Costs Also Supported

In addition to research, the grant will continue to support two UB lecture series featuring prominent scientists: Distinguished Lectures in Vision Science and Pioneers in Neuroscience.

A portion of the funds also will allow ophthalmology faculty members to travel to national and international biomedical and scientific conferences to present their research results.

Goal Is To Improve Sight, Prevent Vision Loss

“I’m extremely excited about the research coming out of the department and the Vision Research Center housed at the Buffalo VA Medical Center, and I’m very proud of our faculty who are generating these discoveries,” says Steven J. Fliesler, PhD, Meyer H. Riwchun Endowed Chair Professor and a research health scientist with the VA Western New York Healthcare System.

“I look forward to the day when these research results will be translated into clinical therapies and cures that will improve or restore vision for those with visual disabilities, and prevent vision loss for those who otherwise might suffer from progressive blinding disorders.”

Grant Aids Faculty Recruitment Efforts

As the department’s vice chair and director of research, Fliesler will help coordinate investigations that faculty conduct under the grant.

He credits the grant with aiding not just faculty research, but recent faculty recruitment efforts as well.

“This unrestricted grant was instrumental in our ability to attract Sarah X. Zhang, MD, associate professor, and Josh Jianxin Wang, MD, research assistant professor, who have already established a vigorous and productive lab,” Fliesler says.

As in previous years, James D. Reynolds, MD, professor and chair of the department, is the grant’s principal investigator.