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Young Scientist Makes Strides in Reengineering the Eye
For research pursuits, Rafael Grytz, Ph.D., has always blazed his own trail. That may explain how a civil engineer from Germany became as an assistant professor in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology.
Grytz applies to the eye principles he first learned as a civil engineer studying shell structures, such as church domes or cooling towers of nuclear power plants. Early in his career Grytz realized he wanted to pursue biomedical research. Having graduated at the top of his class, he earned the chance to choose any area of study for his doctoral research. He made the unobvious choice and selected the eye, specifically diseases that impact the structure of the eye, such as glaucoma myopia and keratoconus.
“The thought that my research may benefit human health was, and still is, extremely motivating,” Grytz said. I chose the eye because my understanding of shell structures could be beneficial. Some engineers were working on biomechanical problems of the heart or the arteries, but little work was done on the eye.”
Grytz quickly realized that being a pioneer had its challenges, especially for a young researcher. Since he had no collaborators and no experimental data during his doctoral work, Grytz had to adjust his thinking and approach his research from a different direction than other biomedical scientists.
Drawing on his experience as a civil engineer, Grytz decided to take a bottom-up approach. He used his knowledge of structures to predict how living tissue in the eye changes when exposed to different mechanical forces. In his simulations, he exposed the eye to the type of stress and strain associated with glaucoma, after which the model predicted how the actual structural properties of the eye would change in response.
Serendipitously, while Grytz was working on his computational models, biomedical engineer J. Crawford Downs, Ph.D., was collecting experimental data using novel techniques and instruments. As it turned out, Grytz’s computational predictions precisely matched the experimental measurements collected by Downs, thus strengthening both findings.
Grytz and Downs both have joined the UAB Department of Ophthalmology to form the core of a team for the department’s Ocular Biomechanics and Biotransport Program. Using traditional engineering principles, this multidisciplinary group of scientists is studying some of the most common eye diseases, such as glaucoma, myopia, and keratoconus.
“These are difficult problems and complicated eye diseases that cannot be solved by scientists from just one or two disciplines; it just isn’t enough,” Grytz said. “So we collaborate across disciplines and bring diverse knowledge together. Our department in particular is very supportive of interdisciplinary work, and that is a great asset for our research.”
Once on the periphery, the field of ocular biomechanics, and Grytz’s work specifically, is gaining recognition. In 2014 Grytz was invited to co-organize the ocular biomechanics symposium of the World Congress of Biomechanics. This was the most attention ever given to ocular biomechanics research by the general field of biomechanics. Grytz’s research is not only leading in ophthalmology; researchers are now using similar computational models to investigate other tissues and diseases.
“We are confident the novel approach our ocular biomechanics team is taking will lead to major advances in the treatment of blinding eye diseases. The strength of their research has already been seen through unprecedented attention at major research conferences,” said Christopher Girkin, M.D., The EyeSight Foundation of Alabama Chair of the UAB Department of Ophthalmology.
“I am very thankful for the vision of Dr. Girkin and UAB Ophthalmology. It is unique to find a department willing to invest in new ideas before the rest of the field,” Grytz said. “But I believe it will pay off and result in significant research breakthroughs.”
Currently Grytz and his team are focused on quantifying the microstructural changes in the eye related to myopia. Commonly known as nearsightedness, this condition occurs when the eye becomes too long for its own optical system.
Again, fueled by his background in engineering, Grytz is taking a direction radically different from other research teams. By thinking outside the box, Grytz hopes to take not just small steps but instead move the field forward in leaps and bounds.
“Many groups are studying different aspects of myopia such as the genetic factors that are involved or are trying to understand how optical signals drive eye elongation,” Grytz said. “But we want to measure the actual changes in the microstructure of the sclera that cause the eye to elongate, because without that measurement how can we tell if a potential treatment is effective?”
“We believe quantifying the microstructural changes in myopia will help more accurately identify effective treatments and push those treatments to patients faster,” he said.
Grtyz’s team plans to apply the techniques they develop for myopia treatment to other eye diseases such as keratoconus.
Source: UAB News