The paint has dried, the cabinets are installed and the floors are gleaming white. The only things missing are the 15 researchers who will occupy the newly renovated EyeSight Foundation of Alabama Vision Research Laboratories in Volker Hall. 

The newly renovated Vision Research Laboratories in Volker Hall will promote collaboration between the departments of Optometry and Ophthalmology. Judith Kapp, left, vice chair for basic research in Ophthalmology, together with Paul Gamlin, chair of Vision Sciences, both expect this new partnership to bring the scientific world closer to understanding the diseases that cause blindness.
Investigators from the Callahan Eye Foundation Hospital, Worrell, Shelby and Spain-Wallace buildings will move into the space this fall. The School of Optometry Department of Vision Sciences and the School of Medicine Department of Ophthalmology expect this partnership one day will bring the scientific world closer to understanding the diseases that cause blindness. 

"The space is wonderful," says Judith Kapp, Ph.D., professor of Ophthalmology and vice chair for basic research. "For many of us, this is a more central location within the university, and it's a much richer environment for research. To walk into a modern, state-of-the-art space as well done as this is exhilarating." 

The facility was created through a $1.2 million grant from the EyeSight Foundation of Alabama, plus additional funds from the provost's office and the schools of Medicine and Optometry. The open-lab design concept will enable several faculty members to share large, conjoined lab spaces and create more opportunities for collaboration.

"We have a strong group of vision scientists on campus, but some are in the School of Medicine and some are in the School of Optometry," says Lanning Kline, M.D., chair of Ophthalmology. "These researchers have made great strides on their own, but in many cases, they're working several blocks apart. The EyeSight Foundation of Alabama recognized the value of bringing these two groups together to create a synergy that will enable us to generate new ideas and accelerate the research through collaboration." 

Paul Gamlin, Ph.D., professor and chair of Vision Sciences, agrees that proximity will help overcome challenges and make it easier to actively collaborate on projects and attract more grant funding and novel research. 

"We now have ongoing collaborations between faculty in different buildings, but the logistics are complicated," Gamlin says. "Several new collaborations already are being planned. People will have more coffee-pot conversations about projects they're working on, which will facilitate ideas."

Treating, curing disease

The goal of these laboratories will be to address the underlying pathology of vision loss associated with glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, genetic diseases and age-related macular degeneration; to determine the best treatments for these blinding diseases; and ultimately to cure them. 

The prevalence of partial vision loss and blindness from these diseases is disproportionately high in the Southeast, particularly Alabama. The hope is that the new research space will provide the infrastructure that will help prevent vision loss throughout the state, region and nation. 

"Most of the focus is on basic research, but there is an increased emphasis on translational research and moving into clinical treatments," Gamlin says. "That represents the push at the National Institutes of Health." 

"Hopefully this translational emphasis will generate new clinical trials that also will take advantage of the other strengths we have, such as the Clinical Vision Research Unit directed by Cynthia Owsley, Ph.D.," Kapp adds. "The CVRU provides core research infrastructure to increase the clinical research capability at UAB in eye disease and vision impairment so that our investigators can develop high-quality research programs and enhance existing ones. The CVRU provides core resources and consultation to investigators in the areas of study design and implementation, project coordination, database design and management, biostatistical analysis, grantsmanship and grants management. They have a great base of knowledge."

School of Optometry faculty relocating to the new labs include Gamlin; Alecia Gross, Ph.D.; Kent Keyser, Ph.D.; Timothy Kraft, Ph.D.; Thomas Norton, Ph.D.; Steve Pittler, Ph.D.; and Om Srivastava, Ph.D. Xincheng Yao, Ph.D., from the School of Engineering, will join them.

Faculty from the School of Medicine moving into the new labs include Kapp; Christine Curcio, Ph.D.; Christopher Girkin, M.D.; Clyde Guidry, Ph.D.; Russell Read, M.D., Ph.D.; Shu-Zhen Wang, Ph.D.; and Yuhua Zhang, Ph.D.

Vision researchers are excited about the opportunity to generate more clinical studies from within UAB. Kapp believes this is an important stimulus for basic scientists. 

"When you're focused on your own area, which goes all the way down to the molecular level, it's easy to wonder, 'Is what I'm doing every going to translate into a treatment for disease in patients in my lifetime - if ever,'" Kapp says. "This will be an excellent environment where researchers can work together and imagine how their work is going to translate, and it will keep them focused."

The new research labs will be dedicated during a two-day celebration Sept. 23-24. A reception, dedication and lab tour will take place Sept. 23. Paul Sieving, director of the National Eye Institute, will be the featured speaker of the Vision Science Symposium, which will be held from 1 to 4 p.m., Sept. 24 in the Smith Education Center in the Callahan Eye Foundation Hospital.