Engineers focused on eye health

Posted: September 22, 2023

Three biomedical engineers at The Ohio State University recently received a total of $5.7 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to advance diagnostics and treatments for various eye diseases.

Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Katelyn Swindle-Reilly, Associate Professor Matthew Reilly and Professor Cynthia Roberts each earned R01 grants—the NIH’s oldest grant mechanism that supports health-related research and development.

Fewer needles in the eye

Katelyn Swindle-Reilly
Assoc. Prof. Katelyn Swindle-Reilly

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a leading cause of blindness in the Western world which currently has no cure. An available treatment that helps patients with AMD maintain vision requires expensive monthly injections directly into the back of the eye.

Biomedical and Chemical Engineering Associate Professor Katelyn Swindle-Reilly leads a multidisciplinary team of researchers that received $2.1 million from the NIH to develop and validate an injectable, biodegradable microcapsule capable of delivering therapeutics for at least 12 months. Their technology has the potential to reduce injections to once per year, improving the quality of life for patients with AMD or other chronic diseases that rely on local injections for treatment.

Swindle-Reilly and her team will also use theoretical modeling, combined with in vitro and in vivo experimental studies, to optimize the microcapsule system.

“This work will help overcome limitations in current treatments by significantly impacting the design of extended-release drug delivery devices, with potential applications extending beyond the eye, including osteoarthritis and cancer,” she explained.

Co-investigators on the project are Retina Division Chair Dr. Matthew Ohr and Associate Professor Nagaraj Kerur from Ohio State’s Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, Julie Racine, director of the Visual Electrophysiology Clinic at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and Ashlee Ford Versypt, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University at Buffalo.

Creating a biomechanical model of the aging lens

Matthew Reilly
Assoc. Prof. Matthew Reilly

Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Matthew Reilly leads a project that will use engineering tools to investigate how changes in lens biomechanics contribute to the development of age-related loss of visual function such as presbyopia.

The most common visual impairment, presbyopia is the gradual loss of the eyes’ ability to focus on near objects. Considered a normal part of aging, the condition adversely affects nearly everyone over age 50—about 1.8 billion people globally.

Supported by a five-year, $1.97 million grant, Reilly and his team aim to develop the first biomechanical model of the aging lens that captures its growth, biomechanical properties and accommodative ability to focus on things up close.

Reilly’s previous research has shown that presbyopia is primarily a result of changing lens shape, specifically that of the fully accommodated lens. A lens is considered fully accommodated when focusing on near objects. Growth-induced change in lens shape is also a known risk factor for age-related cataract. But the biomechanical factors which interact to govern age-related changes in lens shape remain unknown, Reilly said.

In this study, the researchers will systematically characterize the biomechanical properties of the aging human lens and use that information to understand how lens shape evolves over time.

"Significant benefits can be obtained by understanding how dynamic accommodation is lost via presbyopia so that this loss may be reversed, delayed or prevented,” Reilly said. “This model will be immediately useful for evaluating candidate interventions for presbyopia which attempt to address any of these potential driving forces.”

Engineering a better way to monitor eye disease

Professor Cynthia Roberts
Prof. Cynthia Roberts

Biomedical Engineering Professor Cynthia Roberts leads a four-year, $1.7 million renewal R01 grant project that aims to create new tools to aid in managing eye conditions like keratoconus, glaucoma and ocular hypertension.

The project is a continuation of a previous R01 project led by Roberts that examined the separate effects of corneal stiffness and intraocular pressure (IOP) on the biomechanical assessment of the eye.

IOP, or the pressure inside the eye, is an important factor when assessing risk for eye disease, particularly glaucoma, explained Roberts, who is also a professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences. Current measurement techniques—such as the common puff-of-air test which causes the cornea to deform—can render inaccurate pressure readings if a cornea is abnormally stiff or soft.

The new project will include a longitudinal follow-up to generate biomechanically driven risk models for keratoconus, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma conversion in ocular hypertension, as well as to define mechanisms that drive these relationships. The researchers will examine how the novel biomechanical biomarkers they previously identified influence disease progression in multiple conditions.

“At the conclusion of this longitudinal study, we will have created biomechanical risk models for the progression of multiple disease processes,” Roberts said. “Not only will these augment previous models, but there is the potential for translation and incorporation of these new biomechanical risk factors into the clinical management of ocular diseases.”

Co-investigators on the project are Retina Division Chair Dr. Matthew Ohr, Dr. Gloria Fleming, Dr. Andrew Hendershot and Research Scientist Yanhui Ma from Ohio State’s Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences; Optometry Assistant Professor Dr. Phillip Yuhas; Biomedical Informatics Clinical Associate Professor Jeff Pan; and Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Matthew Reilly.

Biomedical Engineering Professor Jun Liu directs a fourth R01 grant-funded eye research project to identify new modifiable risk factors for glaucoma and vision loss due to optic nerve damage. It began in 2022.

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,