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COVID-19 Research

In the past few months, Bascom Palmer’s scientific and clinical researchers have begun studying the impact of COVID-19 on optical tissues. “We have submitted nine proposals to various funding sources as of mid-June,” said BELINDA QUINTA, director of sponsored research programs.

While COVID-19 has been found in ocular tissues and tears, the transmission process and impact on the eye remain unclear. For instance, the coronavirus could enter through the conjunctiva as a primary infection, or have incubated in the lungs before spreading to other organs and tissues, including the eye.

SANDER R. DUBOVY, M.D., professor of ophthalmology and pathology, and the Victor T. Curtin Chair in Ophthalmology, is studying COVID-19 in post-mortem eyes with a grant from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) and The Eye Bank Association of America.

“We have gone into the field, taking biosafety precautions, to collect eyes from individuals who died of COVID,” said Dubovy, who is examining those samples, along with post-mortem corneal tissues, with DARLENE MILLER, D.H.SC., research professor of ophthalmology, and scientific director of the Ocular Microbiology Laboratory, and RICHARD LEE, M.D., PH.D., associate professor of ophthalmology.

“We have been studying the samples through both histomorphology and molecular diagnostics to better understand the effects of COVID-19 on the eye,” Dubovy said. “Currently, the Florida Lions Eye Bank at Bascom Palmer is testing all post-mortem donors to ensure that no tissues that are COVID-positive would be used for corneal transplantation.”

ALFONSO SABATER, M.D., PH.D., assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology, is also studying those post-mortem tissue samples. “We want to see if viral particles are present in different structures,” he said. “We are also quantifying some inflammatory markers.”

Another Bascom Palmer researcher, VALERY I. SHESTOPALOV, PH.D., professor of ophthalmology, has applied for a grant to study the eye’s response to a COVID-19 infection that triggers a severe inflammatory reaction called a cytokine storm, which can damage the lungs and other organs.

A similar inflammatory reaction, on a much smaller level, can occur in the eye due to high intraocular pressure or ischemia (lack of blood). “Mechanical stress and lack of oxygen can trigger neuroinflammation,” said Shestopalov, who was senior author of a 2019 study, “Inflammasome Activation Induces Pyroptosis in the Retina Exposed to Ocular Hypertension Injury” in Frontiers of Molecular Neuroscience.

We have gone into the field, taking biosafety precautions, to collect eyes from individuals who died of COVID.” Dr. Sander Dubovy