Yao’s research may lead to early diagnoses of eye disease

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UAB’s designation by the Carnegie Foundation as an institution with “very high research activity” has accustomed faculty, staff and students to hearing its world-renowned teacher-scholars have received competitive grants and other awards to support their research.

Xincheng Yao, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, is one of three researchers to receive National Science Foundation Career Awards — a prize among the foundation’s most prestigious.

Even so, it is still impressive that some of our youngest and brightest scientists have been thrust into the spotlight in the past seven months, with three professors winning National Science Foundation Career Awards — a prize that the foundation describes among its most prestigious.

Xincheng Yao, Ph.D., assistant professor in biomedical engineering, David Hilton, Ph.D., assistant professor in physics, and Ho-Wook Jun, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering, each won the influential award to support the early career-development activities of professors who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization. The UAB Reporter featured Jun’s work in the March 7 edition and Hilton’s research in the April 4 edition.

This month we look at Yao’s work and its promise.

Yao received his $400,000 NSF Career Award for research into the development of an optical coherence tomography instrument that provides sub-cellular- and sub-millisecond-resolution imaging of the human retina.

The technology promises a high-resolution method for non-invasive evaluation of retinal neural function and dynamics, which could significantly advance the study and early diagnosis of major eye diseases such as glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.

Q. What was your reaction to being selected for this honor by the NSF?

A. I was really excited. This honor strengthened my enthusiasm and confidence for future career development.

Q. How did you become interested in this type of research?

A. I am attracted by the amazing function and delicate structure of the retina. As the front end of the vision system, the retina is responsible for effective capturing of photons and also conducts several stages of neural processing of visual information.

Q. What is the unique aspect of your research, especially as it compares to other similar types of research?

A. We are pursuing simultaneous imaging investigation of stimulus-evoked fast intrinsic optical signals (IOSs) over the whole thickness of the retina. Simultaneous monitoring of fast IOSs correlated with photoreceptor and post-photoreceptor neurons will provide insight to the neural sources and interaction mechanisms of fast IOSs in the complex retinal neural network.

Q. Why is high-resolution imaging of the human retina important in early diagnosis of glaucoma and macular degeneration?

A. The retina is a very delicate neural network that consists of many types of cells.  It is well established that different eye diseases, such as glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy (DR) and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) can target different retinal cells. Therefore, high-resolution functional imaging of the human retina is important for better study and early diagnosis of eye diseases.

Q. Are you creating new technologies while building the instrument or revising previous designs?

A. This project is a natural extension of our recent studies of stimulus-evoked fast IOSs in the retina and other neural tissues. We are developing a rapid functional OCT and validate it for simultaneous imaging of photoreceptor and post-photoreceptor responses in the retina.

Q. Are there other instruments out there that can achieve this type of detail?

A. No.

Q. What impact do you hope the research will have in the fields of ophthalmology and optometry?

A. Successful implementation of the proposed research will lead to a high-resolution methodology that enables functional examination of both photoreceptor and post-photoreceptor responses in the retina, which will lead to improved study and diagnosis of major eye diseases, such as glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy (DR), age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and can target different retinal neurons.