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by Satina Richardson

Yuqiang (Bob) Bai, PhD, UAB School of Optometry researcher, has been awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH)/National Eye Institute (NEI) $1.8 million five-year R01 grant. Findings could improve dry eye disease diagnosis and monitoring.   

The study will allow for early, non‐invasive assessment of dry eye disease and inform the development of new treatments to slow or prevent the condition’s development. The study will also identify signs and symptoms associated with the development of dry eye that can be used for early diagnosis, prognosis, and monitoring of treatment response.

“The objective is to comprehensively study the physical properties of tear film, such as its thickness dynamics, viscosity, and osmolarity, and their relationship to dry eye disease,” Bai said. “This work will take full advantage of my knowledge and background in physics and optics, along with my expertise in biomedical imaging.”

Dry eye is the most common eye disease, affecting anywhere from 5 percent to 30 percent of individuals over the age of 50, with a higher prevalence in females—according to the NEI. The disease occurs when tears can’t provide adequate lubrication for the eyes.

“Discomfort created by the condition causes substantial physical, financial, and psychological consequences,” Bai said.

Treatment options are currently considered only after a patient is symptomatic or palliative care options, such as masks or over-the-counter eye drops, fail to provide long-lasting relief. Some in-office mechanical therapies target the meibomian glands, the main source of lipids for the tear film. Along with the aqueous partition, the lipids form a thin layer over the top of tear film and play a significant role in keeping eyes lubricated and preventing dryness. Despite a handful of therapies, no treatments address the underlying issues with the tear film that may lead to dry eye.

Bai, along with Jason Nichols, OD, MPH, PhD, FAAO, UAB optometry professor, invented new technology to aid his research.

“With the knowledge and experience in physics, optics and related imaging systems, I have developed the new interferometer with a state‐of‐the‐art laser source and high‐speed line scan camera, a specialized post‐processing algorithm based on modern technology,” he said. “The new device breaks through the limits of current methodologies and puts new insights into the human tear film and its lipid layer-the outmost layer of the tear film. With the aid of the device, the work in this grant will bridge this knowledge gap and determine the relationship between the tear film and the lipid layer’s microstructure and function.”

Due to the prevalence of the disease, in 2020, the NEI issued a Notice of Special Interest highlighting a critical need for biomarkers and methods to diagnose dry eye before the onset of symptoms. Bai’s study will address several of the concerns cited in the NEI’s notice.

"The grant is an interdisciplinary dry eye research, in which we will not only apply the new best tools but also produce novel insights and make unique contributions from the viewpoints of physics, " he said.

Along with the new interferometric technique, his early-stage training as a physicist and engineer provides a unique, non-conventional perspective to decipher the pathogenesis of dry eye disease. The current R01 project is expected to advance our understanding of the mechanisms and help guide compositional alterations in various therapeutics for dry eye.