Boston, Mass. — Ula V. Jurkunas, MD, Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, Associate Scientist at Schepens Eye Research Institute of Mass. Eye and Ear, and a resident of Winchester, Mass., has been selected to receive a 2017 ARVO Foundation/Pfizer Ophthalmics Carl Camras Translational Research Award. Supported through a donation from Pfizer Ophthalmics, the award includes a $12,000 scholarship in support of Dr. Jurkunas’ research efforts toward developing new treatments for corneal blindness.
Dr. Jurkunas obtained her medical degree from the University of Louisville and completed her ophthalmology residency at Boston University. She obtained fellowship training in cornea, external diseases and refractive surgery at Mass. Eye and Ear, where she has been a full-time member of the Cornea and Refractive Surgery Service since 2006.
Dr. Jurkunas’ laboratory focuses on two main research areas. The first is the study of Fuchs endothelial corneal dystrophy (FECD), with an emphasis on the role of oxidative stress in endothelial cell death. She was the first to link DNA damage from free radicals with development of FECD, and recently published on the role of mitochondrial dysfunction in endothelial cell loss seen in FECD. In 2016, she published research that for the first time identified proliferating stem cells (known as “neural crest-derived progenitor cells”) in the corneal endothelium of normal and FECD patients, defying the myth that the corneal endothelium does not have a potential to divide and repair itself.
The second focus of her research is the development of cultivated epithelial (stem) cell transplantation for the treatment of limbal stem cell deficiency—a disease characterized by a loss of limbal stem cells, which are critical to maintaining a healthy cornea. These studies involve growing cells from a patient’s healthy eye and transplanting them onto the diseased eye, and have led to the translational development of stem cell therapy in corneal disorders.
“Millions of people around the world are blind or vision impaired from cornea disease,” said Joan W. Miller, MD, the Henry Willard Williams Professor and Chair of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School and Chief of Ophthalmology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Massachusetts General Hospital. “Dr. Jurkunas’ important work in FECD and stem cell transplantation is helping us to better understand how these diseases progress and, one day, may lead to innovative therapies that reduce the need for corneal transplantation and offer hope to those who suffer from these blinding diseases.”
Dr. Jurkunas’ past honors include the K12-Harvard-Vision Clinical Scientist Development Program Award (which supported her research on Fuchs Endothelial Corneal Dystrophy in 2006), the prestigious Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology / Alcon Early Career Clinician-Scientist Research Award, and the Research to Prevent Blindness Clinician-Scientist Award.
“It is a great honor to receive this award,” Dr. Jurkunas said. “We hope that our research will help many people with corneal blindness in the future.”
About Massachusetts Eye and Ear
Mass. Eye and Ear clinicians and scientists are driven by a mission to find cures for blindness, deafness and diseases of the head and neck. Now united with Schepens Eye Research Institute, Mass. Eye and Ear is the world's largest vision and hearing research center, developing new treatments and cures through discovery and innovation. Mass. Eye and Ear is a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital and trains future medical leaders in ophthalmology and otolaryngology, through residency as well as clinical and research fellowships. Internationally acclaimed since its founding in 1824, Mass. Eye and Ear employs full-time, board-certified physicians who offer high-quality and affordable specialty care that ranges from the routine to the very complex. In the 2016–2017 “Best Hospitals Survey,” U.S. News & World Report ranked Mass. Eye and Ear #1 in the nation for ear, nose and throat care and #1 in New England for eye care. For more information about life-changing care and research, or to learn how you can help, please visit MassEyeAndEar.org.
About the Harvard Medical School Department of Ophthalmology
The Harvard Medical School (HMS) Department of Ophthalmology (eye.hms.harvard.edu) is one of the leading and largest academic departments of ophthalmology in the nation. More than 350 full-time faculty and trainees work at nine HMS affiliate institutions, including Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Joslin Diabetes Center/Beetham Eye Institute, Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, VA Maine Healthcare System, and Cambridge Health Alliance. Formally established in 1871, the department has been built upon a strong and rich foundation in medical education, research, and clinical care. Through the years, faculty and alumni have profoundly influenced ophthalmic science, medicine, and literature—helping to transform the field of ophthalmology from a branch of surgery into an independent medical specialty at the forefront of science.
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