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New UT Houston Biophotonics Lab Detects Ophthalmic Diseases
A NASA space medicine researcher whose eye scans may detect disease years before symptoms appear has moved his laboratory to The University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences at Houston (SHIS) where he hopes to translate his technology into everyday patient care.
A project scientist in fluid physics and biomedical optics at the NASA John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in Cleveland for more than 19 years, Rafat Ansari, Ph.D., now a SHIS professor of health informatics, helped develop the Biofluid Sensor System/"Built-for-Telemedicine Environment" fiberoptic probe that NASA hopes to use for early illness detection on a proposed Mars Mission. The system recently underwent clinical tests at the National Eye Institute (NEI) of the National Institutes of Health.
"There is a great opportunity for clinical research in the Texas Medical Center," said Ansari, who was recruited by SHIS Dean Jack Smith, M.D., Ph.D., to take this technology from bench to bedside. "He brings technology for precisely measuring important processes of the body using light," Smith said. "His research is important for developing the next generation of clinical instrumentation in disease detection and treatment monitoring. I am confident his research will have a significant impact on diseases of the eye."
Ansari is a professor in SHIS with a cross appointment in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science at the UT Medical School at Houston. He is also an adjoint professor of Biomedical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.
"By shining light into the eye and collecting the scattered light back, we can evaluate the different structures, morphology and composition of these components," Ansari said. "So, by looking for these changes, detection can occur much earlier than when the clinical symptoms begin."
Ansari's 3,000-square-foot laboratory is working on at least nine applications of this technology based on light-scattering that include the early detection of cataracts, glaucoma and other diseases, the monitoring of astronaut fatigue and alertness, the tracking of blood flow in space, and the measurement of refractive eye surgery - PRK/LASIK - effectiveness.
"We and the Department of Ophthalmology are enthusiastic about Dr. Ansari's joining the UT Houston faculty. We expect to be doing many collaborative studies that relate to vision and the eye," said Richard S. Ruiz, M.D., professor, John S. Dunn Distinguished University Chair and chairman of the UT Medical School's Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science. Ruiz is founder and director of Cizik Eye Clinic, formerly the Hermann Eye Center.
Those collaborations include preliminary experiments on the use of dynamic light scattering to assess Dry Eye Syndrome by Ansari and two professors in the UT Medical School's Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science - Richard Yee, M.D., and Harry Sperling, Ph.D.
"What Dr. Ansari is doing is taking his laboratory work and using it to help people," said Yee, an ophthalmologist at Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center. "With Dry Eye Syndrome, the idea is to measure the amount of secretion from the eyelid into eye film. This would give us some type of quantitative measurement. The problem now is that sometimes the signs don't match the symptoms."
Dry Eye Syndrome affects millions of Americans, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, and can be caused by gazing at computers for extended periods of time, as well as physical ailments such as SjÖgren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease.
Yee also plans to work with Ansari on efforts to measure cataract progression which would be helpful for patient care.
Another dimension of Ansari's collaboration with the UT Medical School's Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science is the involvement of ophthalmology residents in this research.
"Dr. Ansari has a joint appointment in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science and it's a great opportunity to work with leaders in ophthalmology like Dr. Ruiz and his colleagues," Smith said. "The quality and breadth of patient care in the department gives Dr. Ansari a chance to take his ideas and technologies for early detection of disease and evaluate them in a patient-care setting"
The mission of Ansari's "Vision Research and Human Health Diagnostics Laboratory" is to diagnose ocular and systemic diseases non-invasively long before the clinical symptoms appear and help find non-surgical treatments using eye and skin as a window to the body.
"Because the eye is a transparent object, we can observe changes in the structure of eye tissues associated with aging, disease and physiological changes," he said. "Every fluid and tissue type is represented in the eye."
Ansari's light-scattering equipment captures changes at the molecular level. "These tests are 20 to 30 times more sensitive than traditional tests," he said. This technology could one day diagnose Alzheimer's disease, a progressive brain disorder. "There are certain proteins called amyloids that form plaque on the brain of Alzheimer's patients," he said. Some researchers have shown that these same amyloids can be expressed in the eye, and Ansari helped detect these using his light-scattering technology.
It could also be used to help people with diabetes monitor their blood sugar levels non-invasively. "Anything you eat shows up in your eyes. Imagine if people with diabetes could shine a light in their eyes and determine their blood sugar levels. You could say goodbye to fingerstick glucose measurements," he said.
Ansari's initial work at NASA involved the use of light-scattering technology to monitor protein and synthetic crystal growth in space. "The challenge was to take a 10-foot-by-10-foot room and miniaturize it into a 6-inch-by-6-inchby-6-inch cube," he said. "They were looking for something the size of a shoebox to conduct their experiments aboard the space shuttle and the Space Station."
Ansari became interested in the health aspects of this technology when his late father got cataracts - for which there are no medical treatments - and had surgery. Cataracts cause 50 percent of all blindness.
This experience led Ansari to apply his knowledge of light scattering to the early detection of cataract-causing proteins. Ansari and his daughter, Rahila, now a medical doctor continuing her neurology training at Johns Hopkins University, conducted the initial experiments on cow eyes in the kitchen of their house.
Ansari's fiber-optic probe works by detecting molecular changes long before an individual experiences the clouded vision associated with cataracts. "Different scatter patterns can be detected during the early onset of cataracts," he said.
Cataracts are a big concern for space travelers, too. Astronauts are at greater risk of developing cataracts because of radiation exposure. Not limited to eye scans, light-scattering also works on other parts of the body. Because the near-infrared light can penetrate skin, this technology could one day be used to diagnose cranial problems providing functional imaging of the brain much like an MRI machine.
By Rob Cahill, Institutional Advancement
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