Shlomit Schaal, MD, associate professor in the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences,nis working with Martin O’Toole, PhD, assistant professor, department of bioengineering, on the project, which is funded by the Coulter Translational Research Partnership at UofL.

The two are studying a new way for patients undergoing retinal surgery–known as “vitrectomy”–to avoid the need to have subsequent surgery to remove cataracts that commonly develop afterward.

During vitrectomy surgery, vitreous gel is removed from the eye; it is this gel that protects the natural crystalline lens from damage caused by free radicals of oxygen. With the gel loss during surgery, free radicals are diffused onto the lens and cause cataracts, and almost all patients undergoing vitrectomy surgery are forced to undergo a second surgery to remove them.

Schaal and O’Toole have developed an artificial gel that is biocompatible to the vitreous gel present in the eye. Using animal models, Schaal has successfully used the biocompatible gel to create an oxygen barrier next to the lens during retinal vitrectomy surgery.

“The biocompatible gel appears to be working as well as the eye’s natural vitreous gel in blocking oxygen damage to the natural lens,” Schaal said.

The team hopes to be able to move the research into clinical trials within the next year. “The funding we’ve received from the UofL-Coulter Partnership has been invaluable in enabling us to prove our concept thus far,” Schaal said. “We are excited at the prospect of one day being able to help patients avoid the burden of cataract surgery after retinal surgery.”

The five-year, $5 million Coulter Translational Research Partnership in Bioengineering grant awarded in 2011 to UofL fosters the translation of research through successful collaboration between engineers and clinicians, supporting promising technologies. The partnership funds promising projects in order to move innovative technologies to clinical application with the ultimate goal of accelerating the introduction of new technologies to improve the treatment and diagnosis of disease or reduce health care costs.

Schaal is also the director of Retina, the Retina Fellowship Program in Vitreo-Retinal Diseases and Surgery and the Diabetic Retinopathy Service, both at the Kentucky Lions Eye Center.