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Glick Eye Institute researcher lands NIH funding to study racial disparities in glaucoma

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Dr. Harris and his team in the IU School of Medicine Department of Ophthalmology at the Glick Eye Institute have received a two-year R-21 grant for $429,000 from the National Institutes of Health to expand current glaucoma research to include racial disparities. The Glick Eye Institute last month received a $1 million NIH K-08 grant to study congenital glaucoma and potential treatments.

 “This is the first NIH research funding to investigate ocular blood flow in people of African descent to help explain why the disease is more prevalent in that race than in Caucasians,” said Dr. Harris, the grant’s principal investigator.

 Dr. Harris, who also is the Lois Letzter Professor of Ophthalmology and professor of cellular and integrative physiology, has been researching the role of the vascular system and glaucoma for 20 years and is considered an international expert on the topic. He and his team of investigators have published several preliminary reports on blood flow disturbances in people of African descent over the past 10 years. This is his second NIH R award since joining the department in 1993 and brings his total external funding to more than $5 million.

Co-investigators from the Department of Ophthalmology are Louis B. Cantor, M.D., chair of the department; Darrell WuDunn, M.D., Ph.D.; Lyne Racette, Ph.D.; and Brent Siesky, Ph.D. Other co-investigators are George Eckert, MAS, and Huiping Xu, Ph.D., both of the IU School of Medicine’s Department of Biostatistics.

 “We know that people of African descent have an increased prevalence of systemic vascular diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes,” Dr. Harris said. “This suggests that ocular blood flow, or how the blood supply flows to the eye, could tell us why glaucoma is more prevalent in this population. Another of our current research projects, the Indianapolis Glaucoma Progression Study, looks at the overall effect of blood flow on glaucoma. We will narrow the focus with this study.”

Glaucoma, often called the sneak thief of sight, can cause vision loss before a diagnosis is made. Current theory suggests that increased eye pressure causes damage to the optic nerve; Dr. Harris’ research examines blood and perfusion pressure and blood flow to determine the cause and effect of glaucoma and the vascular system.

 “This area of research will help to unravel the mystery of glaucoma, the leading cause of preventable, yet irreversible, blindness in the United States. Understanding the racial differences that may lead to glaucoma helps us to ultimately understand why glaucoma develops in everyone,” Dr. Cantor said.

Warning signs of glaucoma include a loss of peripheral vision, which is often unnoticed by the patient; sudden severe pain in the eye; cloudy vision; halos around lights; and red or swollen eyes. Once vision is lost it cannot be recovered.

Open angle or chronic glaucoma is the most severe type; it runs in families and is most associated with people of African descent. Angle closure or acute glaucoma develops rapidly when the eye’s fluid cannot drain naturally, raising pressure and damaging vision. Other kinds of glaucoma include congenital glaucoma, which is seen at birth, and secondary glaucoma, which develops as a side effect of drugs or other conditions.

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The Eugene and Marilyn Glick Eye Institute on the IUPUI campus in Indianapolis is home to the IU Health Ophthalmology Center and the Glick Eye Institute Optical Services and Eyewear shop. The Glick Eye Institute also staffs eye clinics at Spring Mill Medical Building on the north side of Indianapolis, at Franciscan St. Francis Hospital in Mooresville and at Witham Health Services in Lebanon. Information about the institute, faculty physicians and their specialties, and the research being conducted is available at www.glick.iu.edu. For appointments, call 317-274-2020 or 877-224-8393.