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Moran Eye Center’s Leah Owen Awarded NEI Career Development Grant for Research to Prevent Blinding Disease in Premature Babies

Leah A. Owen, MD, PhD, is pictured in her laboratory at the Moran Eye Center.
Leah A. Owen, MD, PhD, is pictured in her laboratory at the Moran Eye Center.

The National Eye Institute (NEI) has granted John A. Moran Eye Center surgeon-scientist Leah A. Owen, MD, PhD, a prestigious career development award to support her innovative research into a blinding eye disease affecting premature infants.

Owen is among an elite group nationwide selected for the National Institutes of Health’s Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award, which provides funding and protected time for an "intensive, research career development experience."

Owen and her team at Moran will use the $500,000 grant over three years to study why many preterm infants develop retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) and how to prevent this leading cause of childhood blindness.

Specifically, Owen’s lab has been exploring how preeclampsia, a dangerous pregnancy complication, may protect preterm infants from developing ROP. Her multi-faceted research approach will identify molecular and genetic factors in the mother, infant, and placenta, which contribute to this ROP protection. The integration of these traditionally separate areas of study is challenging and has not previously been done.

"We are so thrilled as this award will really help move our work forward," said Owen. "If we can learn how these babies are naturally ‘protected’ from ROP, then we can develop interventions to prevent rather than mitigate ROP disease."

Creating a Team with Wide-Ranging Expertise

As part of the award, Owen will work closely with three international experts:

  • Kathleen B. Digre, MD, Distinguished Professor of Neurology and Ophthalmology at the Moran Eye Center and adjunct professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology who also serves as the director for the Center of Excellence in Women’s Health at the University of Utah.
  • Michael W. Varner, MD, H.A. and Edna Benning Endowed Presidential Professor and vice-chair for research for the U’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
  • Margaret M. DeAngelis, PhD, professor and Ira G. Ross and Elizabeth Olmsted Ross Endowed Chair at the Ira G. Ross Eye Institute in Buffalo, New York, and an adjunct professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the Moran Eye Center.

She will also collaborate with a team representing expertise in each aspect of the project, including Bradley A. Yoder, MD, who oversees the U’s Division of Neonatology; Jessica M. Comstock, MD, a pediatric pathologist at the U and a national leader in placental pathology; Lindsay A. Farrer, PhD, chief of Biomedical Genetics at Boston University; and Benjamin Haaland, PhD, co-director of the Cancer Biostatistics Shared Resource at the U and an associate professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences.

"This award allows my lab to bring together the wide-reaching expertise within multiple areas of medicine and science to achieve the unprecedented goal of truly integrated disease analysis," Owen said.

In a second new award, the NIH recently selected Owen to receive a two-year Extramural Loan Repayment Programs (LRP) grant. The LRP program aims to help attract and retain early-career health professionals by helping them to repay educational debt.

Exploring a ‘Window of Opportunity’ to Prevent ROP

In addition to her research work, Owen has a clinical practice at Moran, where she specializes in the medical and surgical treatment of pediatric eye disease, including ROP, which accounts for up to 40 percent of all childhood blindness.

In ROP, the natural process of retinal blood vessel maturation is hijacked, causing vessels to grow inappropriately between the retina and the front of the eye. This prevents developing eye tissue from having a sufficient blood supply, which can cause vision loss in even mild cases and complete blindness for those with the most severe form of the disease.

"ROP is uniquely suited to prevention because it is not present at the time of preterm birth, but instead develops four to eight weeks later," said Owen. "Despite this window of opportunity, we lack the ability to intervene and facilitate normal retinal blood vessel maturation. Our work is seeking to change this."

As part of the research, Owen’s lab will conduct a clinical study over the next two to three years with about 300 patients from neonatal intensive care units at University of Utah Hospital and Medical University of South Carolina, where Owen completed a pediatric ophthalmology fellowship.

Owen received her medical degree and PhD and completed her ophthalmology residency at the U, and joined Moran’s faculty in 2015.

"Our amazing facility and depth of resources at the Moran have created the perfect launching pad for our work," Owen said. "Support from the NEI to better understand maternal and placental contributions to ROP disease is a big piece to realizing our goal of ROP prevention for these babies."