Lots of eyes are focused on the expanding Department of Ophthalmology at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, which has more than tripled its federal research funding in a single year.
“We attracted $17 million worth of NIH and DOD grant money to both support USF Health Eye Institute vision research program and also the greater vision of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, which is to be a top leader in research in the country,” said Ramesh Ayyala, MD, FRCS, FRCOphth, professor and chair of the USF Health Eye Institute. Dr. Ayyala also holds the James and Heather Gills Chair in Ophthalmology.
The department currently has research funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and pharmaceutical companies for 15 separate research projects – and that’s not counting the NIH grant of a newly recruited faculty member who will join the department next month. Last year, the department was ranked 56th in the nation by its amount of NIH funding. But the department is securing new grants so fast that it is on track to improve significantly when this year’s rankings are released.
The department is now seeing the benefits of years of strategic planning and efforts to expand translational and clinical research and consolidate the USF vision research center at USF Health, Dr. Ayyala said.
“Everything we’ve done in the last three to four years is following this plan, and we are starting to see that there’s an increase in the number of grants we are receiving,” he said.
The department recently added three new surgeons to its full-time staff of 10 eye specialists, along with associate staff to this growing Eye Institute. In addition to training future eye surgeons, the USF Health Eye Institute offers treatment for a wide variety of eye diseases, including cataract surgery, refractive procedures, glaucoma, cornea, retina, oculoplasty and ocular oncology (cancer), neuro ophthalmology and electrophysiology studies – in other words, everything from the front to the back of the eye.
While Dr. Ayyala concentrates on glaucoma – a disease that damages the optic nerve – Edgar Espana, MD, associate professor and vice chair of research for the department, specializes in cataract surgery, corneal transplants and external eye diseases.
Dr. Espana believes that playing a clinician-scientist role – both seeing patients and conducting research -- is important to the department’s long-term goal of being among the Top 10 ophthalmology departments in the country.
“You come to the clinic, you see what problems your patients face, and then you go to the lab and you try your best to work and focus on it. The double hat of being both clinician and scientist is important because you know firsthand what’s important for patients. You know what is needed in clinics,” Dr. Espana said. “The only way you can bring progress to the clinical practice, to be proactive about the needs of patients and to move forward, is to do research,’’ Dr. Espana said. “But it takes a lot of time, hard work and money.”
Dr Espana’s laboratory and NIH funding is focused on understanding corneal wound healing, in which doctors try to prevent scar tissue from forming in the cornea, a condition that might otherwise lead to blindness.
“We are working on manipulating corneal scars with drugs or gene therapy that will prevent the severity of the scar and decrease its density,’’ Dr. Espana said.
The “unwavering support” of MCOM’s leadership is critical to securing research funding, Dr. Ayyala said. Dr. Espana agreed. Even though he already has two prestigious NIH grants, Dr. Espana said, winning such awards is always competitive and is very difficult. Even successful researchers get turned down sometimes.
“If leadership is telling you, ‘We’re behind you,’ that’s so important to us,” he said. “Sometimes they need to tell you, just keep going. Because persistence pays off.”
The support helps promote a bench-to-bedside approach in treating patients by linking basic and clinical science. In this way, the specialist can develop a deeper understanding of a disease, its roots and its complications. It also can add clarity to research projects, which can be more effectively translated into clinical benefits.
The Department of Ophthalmology diagnoses and treats most every known eye disease. USF ophthalmologists treat a broad spectrum of diseases, ranging from ocular cancers, such as melanoma of the eye, to common diseases like dry eyes.
This comprehensive approach to eye care fills a need because the number of Floridians with eye problems grows each year, and many people have had to travel out of state for treatment. Florida, for instance, has the highest rate of age-related macular degeneration of any state: More than 18 percent of people over age 40 have the condition, compared to about 12 percent nationally, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
As the department advances toward its goals and expands its medical offerings, the end result will be what matters most: a patient’s quality of life. For someone to come into the clinic with a serious eye condition and later to regain their sight is one of the most satisfying aspects of the job, Dr. Ayyala said.
“I once treated a young woman who was literally blind for a few years and had never seen her 2-year-old child before she had difficult glaucoma and cataract surgery with us,’’ he explained. “Afterward, she came back to us, crying, because she could now see her child’s face for the first time! Restoring vision for someone is God’s gift to mankind.’’