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Searching for dry eye relief — in tear signals

  • November 14, 2018
Doctoral student Kwaku Osei came to UAB to learn from top researchers in the dry eye field. His work focuses on a tear film component that could provide a new way to treat a growing vision problem.
Written by: Matt Windsor
Media contact: Savannah Koplon

At UAB, more than 7,100 graduate students are exploring the frontiers of human knowledge, following lines of inquiry that will lead to their dissertations or master’s theses. Each has a story to tell.

Kwaku OseiTears may not seem tough, but they’re actually one of your most important defenses against a dirty, bug-filled world.

Inside a film of fluid 25 times thinner than a human hair are a host of proteins, lipids and ions that continually wash over the eye. This microenvironment is the scientific home of Kwaku Osei, O.D., a doctoral candidate in the Vision Science Graduate Program at the UAB School of Optometry. “The surface of the eye is the window to the world,” Osei says. But when the tear film runs dry, the world can constrict to nagging irritation and pain.

'Dry eye is everywhere'

Osei is focused on one particular tear film component, glycoprotein 340 (Gp340). It plays a key role in the inflammatory cascade of dry eye disease, a condition marked by a loss of homeostasis of the tear film, ocular discomfort and visual disturbance. Some 20 million Americans, particularly women and the elderly, are affected by dry eye, but “dry eye is everywhere,” including his native Ghana, Osei says. The incidence is rising along with the spread of digital screens; people who are staring at their phones or laptops tend to blink less frequently, which depletes the protective tear film that the eye surface relies on to stay hydrated and germ-free.

UAB’s Dry Eye Relief Clinic is staffed by experts in diagnosis and treatment of this growing condition. Two FDA-approved drugs for dry eye treatment are currently available, along with devices to improve tear flow. UAB’s reputation in the dry eye field means experimental treatments are being tested here as well. Call (205) 975–2020 or schedule your appointment online.

Osei received his Doctor of Optometry degree from Ghana’s University of Cape Coast. In 2011, during an internship at Omni Eye Specialists and Spivack Vision Center in Denver, Colorado, he was exposed to advanced treatment for dry eye. He became interested in academic research, and when it came time to pursue a Ph.D. program, he gravitated to UAB, which is home to two of the top researchers in the dry eye field: Kelly K. Nichols, OD, MPH, Ph.D., dean of the School of Optometry, and Jason J. Nichols, OD, MPH, Ph.D., professor of optometry and vision science and UAB assistant vice president for industry research development. “The Nicholses are very well known,” Osei says.

Bench to bedside

Gp340, Osei explains, “potentially mediates the pathogenesis of inflammation” in dry eye. It detects desiccating stress signals on the ocular surface and stimulates the release of inflammatory mediators by the immune system, which worsens the symptoms of dry eye: irritation, burning sensation, redness and pain. Osei’s research involves bench studies in the labs of his mentor, Jason Nichols, and co-mentor, Champion Deivanayagam, Ph.D., of the UAB School of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics who is also interested in Gp340. Osei also does research in UAB’s Ocular Surface Research Institute of the Clinical Eye Research Facility (OcCERF), which offers innovative research in areas ranging from dry eye disease and meibomian gland dysfunction to contact lenses and is a hub for clinical trials of new therapies.

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If Osei’s research confirms a key role for tear Gp340 in dry eye, it could be a target for new treatments and a potential biomarker for the disease. Eye drops have been formulated against proinflammatory signaling molecules in some ocular surface conditions, Osei points out. “The same could be done for Gp340 to inhibit or minimize its expression and reduce the inflammatory response in dry eye disease,” he says.

Osei has earned a 2018 Ireland Research Travel Scholarship to further his research on Gp340. He will undergo a one-week training course in Biacore’s surface plasmon resonance technology at GE Healthcare in San Diego to enable him to study the interactions of Gp340 with other biomolecules on the surface of the eye.

At home in Birmingham

In addition to the fascinating work environment, Osei says he enjoys Birmingham’s climate, which is similar to his home in Ghana. “Except for winter,” he notes. “There is no winter in Ghana!”