UAB Ph.D. candidates advancing dry-eye research receive esteemed honor

UAB School of Optometry faculty and Ph.D. candidates searching for answers to better diagnose and treat dry eye disease, are two of nine Ezell Fellows this year.

Postnikoff AblamowiczAnna Ablamowicz, O.D., and Cameron Postnikoff named Ezell Fellows by the American Optometric Foundation to further their research in dry eye disease.University of Alabama at Birmingham faculty and Ph.D. candidates Anna Ablamowicz, O.D., and Cameron Postnikoff have been named Ezell Fellows by the American Optometric Foundation.

William C. Ezell Fellowships are regarded among the highest recognitions awarded to vision science graduate students, and are offered by the AOF to encourage talented individuals to pursue full-time careers in optometric research and education. These fellowships support graduate students enrolled in a full-time program of study and training in vision-related research that leads to a master’s or Ph.D. degree.

“I could not be more proud to say that two of the nine Ezell recipients are from the UAB School of Optometry,” said Kelly Nichols, O.D., Ph.D., dean of the UAB School of Optometry. “These awards are recognized with tremendous esteem within academic optometry, and we congratulate Dr. Ablamowicz and Mr. Postnikoff on their accomplishments.”

Ablamowicz received the Merton C. Flom Ezell Fellowship in Leadership and will further explore the mucins in tear film and dry eye disease under the mentorship of Jason Nichols, O.D., Ph.D.

“Being recognized as an Ezell Fellow is such an honor,” Ablamowicz said. “Applying my clinical knowledge with research in dry eye allows me to pursue more translational research and apply what I discover to help my patients.”

O-glycosylated ocular mucins are a part of the tear film that keeps the surface of the eye lubricated and prevents bacteria from adhering to the ocular surface. In conditions like dry eye disease, the barrier can become disrupted, drying out the ocular surface and preventing tears from adhering to the ocular surface, contributing to a cycle of irritation and dryness.

Ablamowicz is looking at what it means for this barrier to be disrupted, how it is disrupted and the mechanisms that cause the disruption.

“If we can understand the mechanisms behind the disruption, we may be able to develop a treatment for dry eye,” Ablamowicz said. “Right now, the most common treatment for dry eye is to lubricate with eye drops. This is simply treating the symptoms with a Band-Aid, not addressing the underlying cause. I want to contribute to the research being done in understanding mechanisms of dry-eye disease to find extended relief for patients with dry eye.”

William C. Ezell Fellowships are regarded among the highest recognitions awarded to vision science graduate students, and are offered by the AOF to encourage talented individuals to pursue full-time careers in optometric research and education.

Postnikoff received the American Academy of Optometry Section on Cornea, Contact Lenses and Refractive Technologies Ezell Fellowship. Under Nichols’ mentorship, Postnikoff is looking at the impact of sleep on ocular health and inflammation of the eye.

“Being an Ezell Fellow gives me the opportunity to further my research, specifically in dry-eye disease, a condition that affects more than 31 million women and significantly impacts their quality of life,” Postnikoff said.

When the eye is closed for a long period of time, an influx of white blood cells occurs on the eye. Postnikoff is interested in why these cells are there and where they are coming from, specifically why the inflammatory cells have a phenotype different from those found in the rest of the body. Postnikoff hypothesizes that the eye has evolved mechanisms in order to deal with inflammation by using altered neutrophils, the most abundant white blood cell in the human body.

“If the eye had normal neutrophils to deal with inflammation, vision would be lost,” Postnikoff said. “Normal neutrophils would damage the tissue that covers the front part of the eye causing a huge inflammatory reaction, leading us to think that these ocular neutrophils are acting in a way that is different from what has been previously studied. ”

Postnikoff has an ongoing study to investigate this new set of inflammatory cells that have been discovered in the eye, and better determine how these cells work and how they may contribute to health and disease. Potential correlations will analyze symptoms of dry eye with the expression of the cells that are isolated from the eye. Eye cells will be compared to cells isolated from blood to contrast levels of expression. Tears will be observed using biochemical methods to examine the tear film and its neutrophils.

Participants are asked to collect tears using a gentle saline wash of the ocular surface after they have been asleep for eight hours, and may also be asked to provide blood samples. The tears are separated to isolate cell components to look at activity and markers to further develop knowledge about the role of inflammatory cells in ocular surface inflammation to improve therapies and diagnosis for conditions such as dry eye, Sjögren’s syndrome or contact lens discomfort.

The AOF recently announced the nine recipients of the prestigious fellowships, named after the organization’s founding president, William C. Ezell, O.D. The program was established to provide talented postdoctoral students who are pursuing an advanced degree in optometric research and education recognition and support. More than 300 Ezell Fellowships have been awarded since the program’s 1949 inception.

Among the list of former Ezell Fellows are over 20 deans and presidents of optometric schools and colleges, over 100 faculty members, and over 100 Fellows of the American Academy of Optometry, including three of its presidents. Current UABSO faculty who are former Ezell Fellows include Stephanie M. Cox, O.D., Jillian F. Meadows, O.D., Robert N. Kleinstein, O.D., Ph.D., Timothy W. Kraft, Ph.D., Jason J. Nichols, O.D., Ph.D., Kelly K. Nichols, O.D., Ph.D., and Michael D. Twa, O.D., Ph.D.

The 2016-17 Ezell Fellows will be honored at the AOF’s Annual Celebration Luncheon on Nov. 12, 2016, during the American Academy of Optometry’s Annual Meeting in Anaheim, California.