Knights Templar Grant Supports Moran Researcher's Work to Shed Light on Childhood Eye Disorder

Dec 01, 2021 9:30 AM

Eileen Hwang, MD, PhD
Eileen Hwang, MD, PhD

John A. Moran Eye Center surgeon-scientist Eileen Hwang, MD, PhD, investigates an under-researched part of the eye known as the vitreous, the transparent gel that fills the eye.

A recent award from Knights Templar Foundation (KTEF) will support the insight her work stands to give into Stickler syndrome. A hereditary childhood disorder, Stickler syndrome is a cause of retinal detachments that, if left untreated, can cause blindness.

A KTEF Career-Starter Research Grant of $69,961 will allow Hwang to study exactly how the vitreous is abnormal in Stickler syndrome. Because the vitreous gel in children with Stickler syndrome looks somewhat similar to vitreous gel from older people without Stickler, Hwang is investigating how premature aging of the vitreous gel in Stickler during childhood might cause retinal detachment.

"One of the least understood but most important parts of the eye, the vitreous, gradually separates from the retina, the part of the eye that senses light, with age," Hwang explained. "It may cause serious problems such as retinal tears or detachments. It may also play a role in protecting against certain eye diseases."

Hwang wants to discover whether pediatric and age-related vitreoretinal diseases may be prevented or treated by altering the vitreous's biochemistry and structure. 

Curiosity Leads to New Discoveries on Vitreous Separation

Hwang received her bachelor's degree in physics from Princeton University and obtained her doctorate and medical degree at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Following a residency at Moran, she completed a two-year fellowship in vitreoretinal surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Her fascination with the mysteries of the vitreous took root in Wisconsin when she routinely removed and discarded the vitreous while performing surgery.

"We weren't paying a lot of attention to it at the time," she said. "But I realized that the vitreous had a role in most retinal diseases, and I wanted to understand how it works, how it changes over time in normal development, normal aging, and disease."

Hwang realized that while retinal specialists look at images of retinas every day through the process of optical coherence tomography (OCT), they were also capturing images of the vitreous. By paying attention to those scans and then refining scanning methods, she has made significant advances in understanding the rate of separation of the vitreous from the retina.

Her recent research gave ophthalmologists valuable information on using OCT to predict vitreous separation before retinal surgery. She determined OCT was accurate when the vitreous appeared mostly attached but not when the vitreous appeared to be separated from the retina. Hwang has measured the rate of separation of the vitreous from the retina, finding it to be very slow in most people.

Recently published results from the Hwang lab also showed vitreous separation may begin at a much younger age than previously thought, possibly in the teenage years. Hwang received funding from the Thrasher Research Fund to investigate this further.

Hwang joined the Moran Eye Center faculty in 2019, specializing in the medical and surgical treatment of children and adults with retinal conditions. She has received the VitreoRetinal Surgery Foundation Research Award, the Randall J Olson Scholar Award from Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation, and an F30 fellowship from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. She also participates in the University of Utah's Vice President's Clinical & Translational Research Scholars Program.

Research Aligned with Knights Templar Goals

Since 1956, KTEF has supported work to improve vision through research, education, and access to care. By focusing on research, they hope to prevent vision loss first and foremost and correct conditions early.

Their highly competitive Pediatric Ophthalmology Research Grants help young researchers delve into understanding the causes of genetic diseases to help future generations as discoveries eventually prevent or cure blinding diseases in infants and children and benefit generations to come.

To date, the KTEF has expended over $164 million on research, patient care, and education and has awarded over $32 million in research grants to those working in the fields of pediatric ophthalmology and ophthalmic genetics.

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