AOA serving patients through research in optometry

May 10, 2023
For the fifth consecutive year, the AOA is sponsoring the Investigator Initiated Research Award. Investigators are invited to electronically submit proposals by July 1 for projects designed to increase knowledge through basic clinical and/or translational science relative to the continuum of eye and vision care. The AOA provides a maximum of $50,000 in direct costs for research conduct. Eric Ritchey, O.D., Ph.D., talks about his current research on low-level light therapy for patients with meibomian gland dysfunction, which can lead to dry eye disease.
Eric Ritchey, O.D., Ph.D.

A study on low-level light therapy’s impact on meibomian glands—that’s one way Eric Ritchey, O.D., Ph.D., is helping “push science forward” in optometry.

Dr. Ritchey, assistant professor at the University of Houston College of Optometry, is the 2022 recipient of the AOA Investigator Initiated Research Award. The purpose of his grant-funded research is to investigate the effect of low-level light therapy (LLLT) on individuals with meibomian gland dysfunction. LLLT has been shown to be effective in the treatment of dry eye, but the mechanism for its success remains unknown. The study aims to enroll 30 adults with mild to moderate meibomian gland dysfunction to determine LLLT’s effect on the protein composition of meibum and the effect on major meibum lipid composition. Successful completion of the work could lead to future studies to further define the optimal treatment strategy using the intervention. With the AOA Investigator Initiated Research Award 2023 application process now open, Dr. Ritchey discusses his research and encourages AOA-member doctors and scientists to apply.

What is your research project?

I am researching dry eye and meibomian gland dysfunction/disease (MGD). Meibomian glands secrete meibum, which normally is a clear liquid that is primarily a lipid-based secretion. Meibum is secreted when we blink, preventing evaporation of the tear film from the ocular surface. Most dry eye results from dysfunction of these glands, where the meibum starts to solidify and thicken. We are looking at the ability of LLLT to treat meibomian gland dysfunction, specifically how it changes the protein and lipid composition of the meibum before and after treatment.

Why did you decide to pursue this line of research?

I chose to pursue this line of research for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that dry eye disease is a common condition that doctors of optometry deal with every day in practice. It affects millions of Americans, and as our patient population ages, doctors of optometry are treating more and more dry eye disease. Meibomian gland dysfunction and dry eye disease can cause significant reductions in the quality of life of these patients and can cause contact lens wearers to stop wearing lenses. The second reason is the lack of understanding of exactly how LLLT works. Traditional treatments used to treat MGD usually focus on heating up the meibum and expressing the glands. LLLT is a relatively new treatment for MGD, and it is different in that LLLT has been used in other health care applications and is reported to affect cellular metabolism. When it comes to MGD, no one knows exactly what LLLT is doing to meibomian glands. We are looking to see how LLLT changes meibum by comparing meibum before and after treatment with LLLT. Understanding how this therapy may work gives eye care practitioners the information needed to see if this treatment makes sense for their patients and their practices.

How did receiving the Investigator Initiated Research Award help your research?

The AOA award is critical to my research interests. The support from the AOA allows our lab to demonstrate the feasibility of evaluating the changes in the lipids and proteins in meibum with LLLT treatment. Because the therapy is new, there is little data on how LLLT affects patients. The data produced with the support of the AOA Investigator Initiated Research Award is critical as my lab and research collaborators work toward application for National Eye Institute funding to support large-scale clinical trials.

Why should people apply for the research award?

Investigators should apply for the award because this support allows researchers to advance science on cutting-edge topics in the profession. It is extremely difficult to receive federal research funding for topics where there is limited data to show project feasibility. The AOA Investigator Initiated Research Award not only allows researchers to gain insight and answers to their questions proposed in the grant itself, but it serves to collect data critical to advance further research in the field. The AOA’s support allows clinician-scientists to really push science forward, which ultimately benefits our patients.

How to apply

Heather Anderson, O.D., Ph.D., is the chair of the AOA Council on Research (COR), which is charged with evaluating each application for the Investigator Initiated Research Award based on certain criteria and then making a recommendation to the AOA Board of Trustees. Dr. Anderson also is associate professor and chair of Research and Graduate Studies in Vision Science in The Ohio State University College of Optometry.

To date, the AOA has awarded $200,000 in research funding.

“Grant proposals are reviewed in a two-stage process to identify the future recipient,” Dr. Anderson says. “The scientific merit of the proposals is evaluated by the members of the Council on Research along with invited topical experts external to the AOA. COR then forwards the top scientific proposals to the AOA Board of Trustees for final selection of the recipient. Overall, we are looking for proposals that can be accomplished within the timeline (12 months) of the award and will provide meaningful data that the investigator can then use to pursue large-scale funding from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

“It is critical that the optometric profession stay engaged in conducting and leading high-level research to further the advancement of knowledge to better serve our patients,” she adds. “This grant mechanism was developed by the AOA to support optometric researchers at any career level in obtaining the pilot data they need to pursue the high-impact, large-scale funding that will move our understanding of eye disease, vision health and treatment strategies forward. Investing in the work of our trained optometric researchers is an investment in the visual well-being of our communities.”

AOA Investigator Initiated Research Award

Investigators are invited to submit proposals designed to increase knowledge through basic clinical and/or translational science relative to the continuum of eye and vision care. The AOA will provide a maximum of $50,000 in direct costs for research conduct.

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