Utah's Doogie Howser: Bala Ambati Started His Career Young


Did you know the University of Utah’s John A. Moran Eye Center is home to the Guinness Book of World Records Youngest Doctor on the Planet?
The distinction was awarded to Bala Ambati, M.D., Ph.D., when he graduated from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York in 1995 at 17.  Ambati today is a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Utah School of Medicine and director of corneal research at the University of Utah’s John A. Moran Eye Center.

Ambati’s career hasn’t slowed down since he was dubbed a whiz kid (and a genius) at the age of nine. He has been an invited speaker at the World Ophthalmology Congress, American Society of Cataract & Refractive Surgery, International Congress of Eye Research, and other national and international conferences. He donates his time overseas on missions with ORBIS, a nonprofit organization with a Flying Eye Hospital, where he has trained local surgeons in Ghana and Malaysia.

He also maintains a dynamic research laboratory, exploring and advancing new treatments for abnormal blood vessel formation (involved in corneal injury, macular degeneration, diabetes, and cancer) as well as development of novel surgical technology and devices. He has published more than 40 peer-reviewed publications and two books. And he manages to squeeze in duties as the official Utah Utes team ophthalmologist.

At this week’s meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology in Orlando, Fla., Ambati will be honored with the Ludwig von Sallmann Clinician-Scientist Award, given to a distinguished international ophthalmologist and ophthalmic investigator whose contributions have greatly increased the basic and clinical understanding of vision and ophthalmology.
Here’s what he had to say about his latest honor and what it means to connect with colleagues this year at ARVO from May 3-8:

Q: At ARVO, you'll receive the Ludwig von Sallmann Clinician-Scientist Award. What does it mean to you to receive this award?
 I am deeply humbled and honored by the Sallmann Award, which is named for a premier ophthalmic clinician-scientist. This award is given by ARVO, an organization which I deeply respect. I first joined ARVO when I was 20, and being recognized by mentors who helped me grow up is very touching.
 Q: You've had a storied career already —and you've still got years to go. What are you most proud of in terms of research accomplishments in your career thus far? How might the general public benefit health-wise one day from the research you've started? How may your discoveries today impact health (or science research) tomorrow?
My career, and this award, is ultimately due to many things including family support. It’s also directly due to a fantastic group of scientists, staff, and students who I have the great fortune to work with and call as members of my team. Our deepest insights I think have been determining what keeps the cornea clear and what keeps blood vessels from entering the deep retina in normal conditions. These normal vascular barriers are critical for optical transparency and clear vision, but compromised in disease or injury. Understanding the basis of these demarcations has helped us create new approaches to therapy which we hope to translate into new drugs for cornea transplant rejection, macular degeneration, retinal stroke. and diabetic retinopathy.
 Q: What are the next steps in your research after learning what you've learned so far? What goals would you like to accomplish in the future?
As a scientist who also sees patients, I am deeply committed to translating our basic science findings into advancements for taking care of people.  I hope our discoveries can transform practice and care with new drugs which last longer, avoid current side effects, don’t need to be injected by a needle monthly into the eye, and reduce and reverse vision loss for patients with macular degeneration, diabetes, retinal stroke, and transplant rejection. If at the end of my career and look back and see that we have helped more people see better for longer, and hopefully clarified mechanisms of these devastating diseases and illuminated pathways for better treatment and regeneration of the cornea and retina, then I will be proud.

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