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Clarke Receives Funding to Continue Glaucoma Research

June 29, 2016: A Clarke University student research project studying the effects of certain drugs in the treatment of glaucoma will continue thanks to a grant from the R.J. McElroy Trust.

There are a variety of drugs that help alleviate the effects of glaucoma. But not all drugs work on all people. Why do some drugs work better than others? The Clarke University Biology Department has been doing research on this topic since the summer of 2015 in an attempt to answer those questions. It will share the results of this work with the Mayo Clinic. Laura Hecker and Shaun Bowman, both assistant professors of Biology at Clarke, and three students doing undergraduate research – Ryan Ryba, Theresa Koos and Paige Peters – are working on the study in the Marie Miske Center of Science Inquiry’s Student Research Lab.

“We are testing drugs that are used to lower pressure in the eye for people who have glaucoma,” Hecker said. “These are the first line of drugs that are typically used by people. However, it is not known exactly how they lower pressure. So that is the overall question we’re trying to get at. How do they act on the structure of the eye to lower pressure?

“The funding from the recent McElroy grant will allow us to purchase the supplies needed to continue our work studying the role of the HEF-1 protein in human ocular cells.”

Glaucoma is actually a group of diseases that result in the death of neurons in the optic nerve. The eye continually produces fluid that exits the eye where the cornea and iris meet, an area called the trabecular meshwork. When the fluid drains too slowly through this meshwork, pressure builds in  the eye. This pressure on the optic nerve can lead to the death of these neurons at the back of the eye and cause a loss of vision.

“You have to alleviate the pressure somehow or it’s going to start to press on the back part of the eye,” said Hecker. “Those cells start dying in glaucoma and if they start dying they can’t be replaced in the retina and there is loss of vision. Loss usually starts out on the periphery. One of the bad things about glaucoma is it’s asymptomatic. There’s not a lot of pain. You may not notice vision loss until you’ve had some death of cells back there.”

Through the research, Peters has analyzed the expression of HEF-1 protein in ocular cells at several time points following drug treatment and determined that HEF-1 is maximally expressed at five hours after drug exposure. 

“We are currently working with two high school students as part of CUSSP (Clarke University Summer Scholarly Program) to verify her findings,” Hecker said. “Using this new information, the focus of our current grant is to determine the function of HEF-1 in the cell.  To that end, Ryan and Paige will now conduct experiments to analyze the partner proteins that interact and work with HEF-1 in the cell following drug treatment. This work, which will require the majority of the grant funds, will primarily be completed this summer.” 

The Clarke team obtained human eye cell lines last summer from the Mayo Clinic. These are cells isolated from donor eyes that do not have glaucoma but cannot be used for cornea transplants for various reasons. They cultivate the cells from the drainage area and test various drugs on them.

Clarke has received $1,045 from the R.J. McElroy Trust to continue this work.

For more information, contact the Clarke University Marketing and Communication Office at (563)588-6318.

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