Cebulla 1As she prepares to release the findings from a recent study of macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF), Colleen M. Cebulla, MD, PhD and her team are setting up a new study of the retina that builds on her previous work, thanks to a $1.9 million grant from the Department of Defense.

“We have been looking for the proteins that might be important for loss of neurons after retinal detachment, or scar tissue formation in the eye,” Cebulla says. “We’re interested in the inflammatory proteins that are involved in those processes. MIF looks interesting and has been implicated in a lot of diseases, but no one has looked at it as a therapeutic target for retinal detachment.”

Proliferative vitreoretinopathy (PVR) is the most common cause of failure of retinal detachment surgery, occurs frequently after retinal trauma, and there are no effective pharmaceuticals to prevent it. The study is investigating the effects of drugs that target MIF, which is produced at high levels in PVR, as well as testing the ability of different clinically relevant MIF inhibitors to block photoreceptor death and abnormal healing.

“We’re the first to show that MIF goes up in experimental retinal detachment. When we block it with a drug, we can prevent loss of the photoreceptors from the detachment and prevent the retinal gliosis that is an important part of scar formation,” Cebulla says.

Cebulla and her team, as well as Andy Fischer, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience, Abhay Satoskar, PhD, Professor of Pathology, and Julie Racine, PhD, Director of Visual Electrophysiology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, will look for other clinically-relevant MIF inhibitors to determine if they would potentially be helpful for traumatic retinal detachments that military personnel might experience.

“We’re going to look at whether it can prevent cell death and scar tissue in several different ways,” Cebulla says.

After retinal detachment, some patients develop complications due to inflammatory responses. The hope is that the study will provide the ground work for a clinical trial in patients, which could lead to therapeutics that could prevent vision loss from ocular trauma and damage from retinal diseases.

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Research EYElight

“I love the combination of surgery and medicine. It’s artistic and technological," Dr. Cebulla says. "There are a lot of great opportunities for research, and the people are so nice.” 

Cebulla decided to go into research when she graduated from the MD, PhD program.

“I’m really glad I did, because all the time, as a doctor, I see patients who have terrible eye problems and can’t see because of them," Cebulla says. “Being able to think about the problems that people are facing and trying to do something about them, or learning about why something happens or what can we discover from it, lets us help people in the future.

“That’s what motivates me. The discovery part of it is exciting. It feels valuable to work on something that can hopefully, one day, help people see better.”