Local Campus Is Research Site For Eye Disorder

May 8, 2002
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Armed with a $375,000 grant, a Calvin College professor is doing his “small part” to find a cure for dry-eye syndrome, a sometimes debilitating condition that afflicts up to 14 million Americans a year, most of them women.

John Ubels, an assistant professor of biology at Calvin College, has conducted research into ocular diseases for 20 years.

His work on dry-eye syndrome received a significant boost last summer when Calvin College received the $375,000 grant from the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes for Health.

The grant will allow Ubels to continue his research with the help of two or three Calvin College students each semester. Ubels’ hope is that his work will help researchers eventually come up with a cure or prevention for dry-eye syndrome.

“It’s going to contribute to the overall picture,” Ubels said.

Ubels calls his work “basic research” that uses cell cultures produced in a lab.

Participating in the project enables students to get hands-on experience that will serve them well if and when they move on to graduate or medical school, Ubels said. Graduate and medical schools “take notice” of students who participate in research projects during their undergraduate studies, Ubels said.

“It adds quit a bit to their education at Calvin,” Ubels said. “It introduces them to research and prepares them.”

Dry-eye syndrome causes the film that covers the eye to become deficient or abnormal due to a malfunction of the tear glands. It leads to irritation, impaired vision, pain and even disease of the cells on the eye’s surface.

About 90 percent of the people afflicted with dry-eye syndrome are post-menopausal women. There’s no cure or treatment, although patients can use artificial tear drops for temporary relief of symptoms.

“There’s nothing you can do to help these people with a cure or a prevention of this disease,” Ubels said. “We really don’t understand the underlying disease well enough.”

Ubels’ work has centered on the relationship between Vitamin A and the function of tear glands. Vitamin A was once considered a possible treatment for dry-eye syndrome, but clinical trials were disappointing.

His latest research under the new NIH grant will look at how Vitamin A and the sex hormone androgen interact in the tear glands. Androgen levels drop off in women after menopause.

Ubels’ grant marked the first time Calvin College has received NIH funding for a research project. His work is one of many research projects at Calvin, including one on examining how a new diabetes drug called Rezulin works in the body.

The college’s goal is to strike a complementary balance between academics and research, Provost Joel Carpenter said in an article in a recent Calvin alumni newsletter.

“There is an assumption in American academia that teaching and research necessarily compete with each other, and that one activity can gain only by taking away from the other,” he said.

“At Calvin we are trying to break through these assumptions. Teaching is job one, but scholarship is integrally related to teaching, and every professor should have an ongoing intellectual agenda.

“We are saying that both teaching and research are integral to the calling of a professor.  In a community of learning, everyone must be an active learner, and for the professor, that means engaging in advanced scholarship.”

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