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Moran Eye Center Surgeon-Scientist Eileen Hwang Develops New Ways to Study the Vitreous

You may have heard of floaters—specks floating across your vision—or sight-threatening retinal detachments and holes.

But odds are you’re not too familiar with the root cause of both: the vitreous. This transparent gel fills the eyeball and changes as we age. Yet little is known about it compared to other vital parts of our eyes.

John A. Moran Eye Center surgeon-scientist Eileen Hwang, MD, PhD, is working to advance our understanding of the vitreous to develop new treatments for patients. She’s been building her science from the ground up; many methods used to study other parts of the eye simply don’t work well for analyzing the vitreous. Its structure is 99.8 percent water.

“We are the first ones to really tackle this challenge by coming up with a way to accurately image the structure of the vitreous using a confocal microscope,” says Hwang. “It uses light to only image a thin slice of a big piece of tissue, and that’s really given us images of the vitreous in its natural state, in its natural location, that we’ve never had before. We found that in some areas of the eye, there is higher density of the vitreous and lower density of the vitreous, so we can explore what is changing with age and why is it changing with age.”

Human Eye Anatomy graphic


New Research to Map the Vitreous

Hwang and colleagues published their work in the journal Biomedical Optics Express.

In earlier research, Hwang used optical coherence tomography 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.

“There are unexplored opportunities to take current technologies and apply them to the vitreous to really make a big difference,” says Hwang.

Her research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Knights Templar Eye Foundation; the University of Utah; the ALSAM Foundation; the National Eye Institute, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, and Research to Prevent Blindness.