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Safal Khanal, OD, PhD, FAAO, assistant professor at the UAB School of Optometry, received the 2022 Career Development Award from the American Academy of Optometry (AAO). Khanal is the School’s first faculty member and one of only six faculty members nationwide to receive this honor since its inception in 2015.

This award is designed for educators and scientists involved in research and provides funding for innovative, original, independent, and principal investigator-driven projects. Through this award, Khanal will receive $200,000 in grant funds over two years to pursue a clinical research project that investigates why myopia, commonly known as nearsightedness, develops and progresses in humans.

“The long-term goal of my translational research program is to inform ocular and environmental factors leading to myopia development and use this knowledge to devise safe and effective interventions aimed at preventing the onset of myopia and slowing its progression,” Khanal said.

Research in the field of myopia piqued Khanal’s interest because the condition is already a global epidemic. It is the most common and fastest-growing ocular disorder and a serious threat to eye health with devastating consequences that can often lead to permanent blindness.

“Studying myopia mechanism and treatment greatly excites me because life rarely presents one with an opportunity to address an almost ubiquitous health issue of global priority and make meaningful scientific contributions that can positively impact the lives of so many people,” he said.

Statistics show that more than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from myopia and are at risk of losing sight due to myopia-related ocular complications. If this trend continues, myopia is on track to afflict half of the global population by 2050, resulting in an enormous public health burden of blindness and visual impairment.

Myopia can negatively impact vision because it is closely related to the size of someone’s eyes. Individuals with this condition have an abnormally and excessively elongated eyeball which causes not only blurry vision at distance but also stretching of the tissues at the back of the eye, predisposing these individuals to a lifelong risk of irreversible vision loss from ocular pathologies like macular degeneration and retinal detachment.

Traditional myopia management strategies, such as glasses, contact lenses, and refractive surgery can correct blurry distance vision and help people see clearly to a large extent, but cannot prevent or slow excessive eye growth associated with myopia. As a result, myopia continues to progress to pathologic levels, resulting in enormous risks to eye health from myopia-related complications. Research in the last few years has led to the development of a few optical and pharmacological treatment strategies that can slow eye growth to reduce myopia risks in later life; however, the effectiveness of these treatments remains inadequate and unsatisfactory.

 “Without a mass implementation of preventative and curative strategies, myopia will soon become the leading cause of blindness and visual impairment worldwide,” Khanal said. “I hope that our research works will contribute to the development of effective myopia control strategies that can be readily adopted as public health measures and rapidly translated to clinical care so as to avert the impending tsunami of myopia and myopia-related complications across the globe.”