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NIH awards Emory research team $3.2 million to study eye disease in Ebola survivors

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Holly Korschun

Emory researchers including Yeh were recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo to provide eye care for survivors of Ebola virus disease.

The Emory Eye Center has been awarded a grant from the National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health (NIH) to further study vision-related issues in Ebola virus disease survivors. The $3.2 million grant stems from prior work related to eye disease in Ebola survivors in the United States and Sierra Leone since the West African Ebola outbreak from 2014 to 2016. Eye Center physician Steven Yeh, MD, is principal investigator of the grant.

The team’s research focuses on the prevalence and treatment of uveitis in Ebola survivors. Uveitis is an ocular inflammatory disease that can lead to vision impairment or even blindness, if left untreated.

“This NIH investment will allow our investigative team to rigorously evaluate eye disease in Ebola survivors in West Africa, as well as the mechanisms that underlie the development of eye disease,” Yeh says. “Specifically, we will evaluate patient risk factors, Ebola viral persistence in the eye, and the role of the patient’s immune system in mediating uveitis.”

Leading investigators from departments across Emory University – Emory Eye Center, Emory Vaccine Center (Rafi Ahmed, PhD), and Rollins School of Public Health – will collaborate on key aspects of the five-year project. Researchers from the U.S. Army Medical Reserve Institute of Infectious Diseases, Tulane University School of Public Health, and Kenema Government Hospital Lassa fever laboratory will work on key laboratory diagnostic investigations. Other key academic institution partners include the University of California San Francisco, Proctor Foundation and Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.

Ophthalmologist Matthew Vandy, MD, of the Lowell and Ruth Gess Eye Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone, is another lead collaborator.  Yeh and co-investigator Jessica Shantha, MD, from the Emory Eye Center have worked with Vandy and others since first traveling to Sierra Leone in 2015.

“Eye care is only one issue among many in Ebola survivors,” Shantha says. “However, prior studies have shown that over 30 percent of survivors may develop ocular complications. Uveitis and cataracts are two of those complications. Both tend to show clinical features differently in Ebola survivors than in other patients and often are much more difficult to treat.”

Part of that treatment has included the design of specialized ophthalmic procedure rooms in Sierra Leone to safely test ocular fluid for Ebola before scheduling the patient’s surgery. As Yeh says, “Because of the potential that Ebola virus might remain in a patient’s ocular fluid, we want to ensure that we’re doing everything possible to protect the patient and their health provider.”

Emory Eye Center faculty conduct research related to causes of and treatments for glaucoma, age related macular degeneration, cataract, optic nerve damage, genetic eye diseases, and more. The Eye Center has received more than $45 million in vision research grants from NIH since 2006.

“I want to congratulate Dr. Yeh and his team for obtaining this significant NEI funding for their research on survivors of Ebola virus disease,” says Allen D. Beck, MD, chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and director of the Emory Eye Center. “We are fortunate to have Dr. Yeh and Dr. Shantha  on the faculty of the ophthalmology department and we look forward to future discoveries that will help care for these very special patients.”

Yeh joined Emory Eye Center in 2010. He holds the M. Louise Simpson Professorship in Ophthalmology, is director of the Eye Center’s Uveitis Service and is a Faculty Fellow in the Emory Global Health Institute.

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