Research on eye aberrations not abstract to award-winning scientists

May 14, 2024
For the sixth consecutive year, the AOA is sponsoring the Investigator Initiated Research Award. Investigators are invited to electronically submit proposals by June 15 for projects designed to increase knowledge through basic clinical and/or translational science related to the continuum of eye and vision care. Jason Marsack, Ph.D., talks about the work he and his collaborators are currently pursuing in the laboratory.
Jason Marsack, M.S., (biomedical engineering), Ph.D., (physiological optics),

Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Vision scientist and engineer Jason Marsack, M.S., (biomedical engineering), Ph.D., (physiological optics), has an image in his mind’s eye of a 7-year-old child. Today, that child sees well. But one day, the child in his mind could walk into the office of a doctor of optometry and be diagnosed with a life-altering eye condition.

Marsack, principal investigator, is the winner of the 2023 AOA Investigator Initiated Research Award. Current collaborators in the research are Alexander Schill, Ph.D., (chemical physics) and Nasim Maddah, M.Sc., (optometry). Learn more about the 2024 applications being accepted electronically through June 15.

“I want to do what I can to help the eye care field to be as ready as possible when that patient comes to the clinic with this difficulty,” says Marsack, an associate professor in the University of Houston College of Optometry.

“I feel my job, as a scientist and researcher, is to support the optometrists and ophthalmologists or anyone who is patient-facing,” he adds. “My job is to help develop tools that allow clinicians to better meet their patients’ needs.”

Marsack discusses the work he and his collaborators are currently conducting and how they hope this area of work will make a difference in the clinic.

What is your research project and how will it someday help doctors of optometry and their patients?

Applying Wavefront-guided Optics to Previously-built Scleral Lenses is the name of our current research project. Scleral lenses are specialty lenses that are fit in the clinic. And for many years, our laboratory and many other researchers, clinicians and industry entities have been working toward customizing the optics of these lenses to meet the individual needs of the patient. Lenses that have been customized in this way are collectively referred to as wavefront-guided lenses. This work seeks to help patients who are typically not good candidates for soft lenses or glasses. We seek to develop corrections for people with high levels of aberration of the eye—people with keratoconus or pellucid marginal degeneration, maybe post-LASIK ectasia—anything where there’s elevated higher-order aberrations.

Our current project looks at trying to develop a new process for customizing the optics of lenses to meet the individual needs of the eyes of these patients. We are still talking about wavefront-guided lenses—we’re just altering the method that leads to the production of that wavefront-guided lens. As of right now, wavefront-guided lenses are available in the clinic, but their availability is extremely limited. Only a select handful of practitioners prescribe these lenses. What we hope this grant will help us do in the long run is address many of the really hard problems associated with wavefront-guided lenses and provide additional choice to the clinician. The approach we are taking with our research is… ‘Let's evolve the challenging parts of the wavefront-guided lens fitting process,’ so that the doctors might have an easier time in the clinic, and they can readily prescribe some of these custom lenses in a way that's more in line with what they already do routinely in their practice.

Why did you decide to pursue this line of research?

In the laboratory environment, the results of wavefront-guided lens experiments were very exciting, very positive. Lots of research teams were looking at this and seeing success, and it was very exciting! If you look at that body of work, some of those successful demonstrations in the laboratory occurred over 10 years ago, yet wavefront-guided lenses remain a very niche kind of thing in the real world. We are hoping our research provides additional pathways to wavefront-guided lenses—not replacing the way things are done now but providing more pathways for patients to obtain wavefront-guided lenses. For our team, that is what it is all about: increasing choice for the patient and clinician. 

How does the award impact your research?

We are extremely thankful for the award from the AOA. Pursuing funding is an extremely competitive process and research is incredibly expensive. We’re also at a point of discovery here—we’re trying to figure something out for the first time and sometimes we try things, and they don’t work exactly as we thought they might. With that in mind, I feel very fortunate that we have this funding. I feel as if we are stewards of this money—as if it is the patients’ money, if you will, and we have been entrusted to do our best to turn this into something beneficial in the long run. For our project, having the money from the AOA means more opportunity to take roadblocks out of the way of doctors and patients and move one step closer to meeting the needs of that 7-year-old patient. 

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