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Welcome, friends! Our Spring newsletter is replete with information describing how the James & Jean Culver Vision Discovery Institute continues to engage and energize community leaders, grateful patients, scientists, and physicians, all to support our aim of becoming an internationally renowned destination for eye research and therapy. To achieve this goal, we must rely on the expertise of our most exemplary community members and patients. Our new Culver VDI external advisory board is composed of such individuals. These members serve as ambassadors for the institute; advise and assist us in strategic planning; support us in fundraising, development and implementation of short- and long-term goals; and provide community outreach and service. Through this Advisory Board, these members will lend their unique perspective as patients and community leaders. One of these members is Jon Simowitz, whose family’s philanthropic support allows us to invest in cutting-edge research. (See Giving, page 3) Culver VDI member Dr. Amy Estes is featured in this issue, and you will want to learn more about her groundbreaking work in treating cornea complications. We also welcome Culver VDI faculty members Dr. Yanbin Dong, Dr. Anthony Ahmed, and Dr. Hannes Devos. (See Faculty Spotlight, page 12 and Faculty Updates, pages 9-10) Finally, we thank Bill Andrews, Interim Chair of the Department of Medical Illustration, and Mike Stanley, Chief Ophthalmic Photographer, whose artistic contributions were featured in the Atlanta Science Festival at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art (See In Brief, page 4). Learn more about the art of medical illustration in our story with Bill on page 7. Happy Spring, Drs. Sylvia Smith and Julian Nussbaum



GIVING __________________ 4

Welcome to the James & Jean Culver Vision Discovery Institute at Georgia Regents University, where we are making innovative discoveries into diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and corneal disruption—all common causes of blindness. Our mission is to engage in high impact research and discovery that will help improve the lives of patients suffering from blindness and visual disorders.

IN BRIEF _________________ 5 CULVER SPOTLIGHT_______ 6

For questions about the mission or activities of the Culver VDI, call 706-721-1150 or email To support the Culver VDI, call David Cantrell, Major Gifts Officer at 706-721-1817 or email

DISCOVERIES_____________10 PROGRAMS______________ 11 FACULTY SPOTLIGHT______ 12 FACULTY UPDATES________ 13


MEMBER LIST_____________14

James Culver examines Gemini IV command pilot James McDivitt prior to launch in 1965.

DON’T MISS______________16







IN BRIEF Jon Simowitz is acutely familiar with macular degeneration, an age-related disease that causes central vision loss. Both his father, Bernard, and his aunt, Bess, suffered with it for the last 10 years of their lives, and when it came time for his Aunt Bess to will her estate, she told her nephew: “Give the money to the blind.” It was a broad request. But it happened that another diagnosis of macular degeneration was happening in his family, this time for Simowitz’s wife, Susan. During a routine eye appointment for glasses, the optometrist noticed a spot on her eye and urged her to get it checked. She was referred to the Georgia Regents Eye Care Center and the care of Dr. Julian Nussbaum. Four years later, Susan’s sight, blessedly, remains unimpaired, and through his late aunt’s gift, Simowitz has also been able to support research into clearer vision at the Culver VDI, including Dr. Manuela Bartoli’s work in macular degeneration, retinal neurovascular injury and other conditions that can

lead to blindness. With so many family members affected by this devastating eye disease, the gift is highly personal for Simowitz. “My wife and I had one of those ‘old-age’type discussions recently about what your future is and who’s going to take care of you. We both feel very, very strongly that one of the great fears in life is being blind,” he said. “Knowing that there’s research going on out there for a horrible disease like this, there’s a message that needs to get out that it can be supported privately and publicly.” Inaugural Advisory Board Convenes Simowitz recently joined a group of community leaders, grateful patients, physicians, scientists, and other supporters for the inaugural meeting of the Culver VDI Advisory Board, who will work as community ambassadors to share the good news of the Culver VDI, assist in strategic planning, and garner support.


Pictured Above: Jon Simowitz shares the message that research for macular degeneration can be supported both privately and publicly.


Dr. David Birnbaum

Mr. Bob Richards, Sr.

Mr. Wallace Cassels

Dr. Neil Shmunes

Dr. Jack Chapman

Mr. Jon Simowitz

Mr. Hossein Golabchi

Dr. Tracie Sponseller

Dr. Joyce Haskell

Mr. Barry Walter

Dr. Thomas Lovas

Dr. Arthur Willis


Members of the Culver VDI attended the institute’s 6th annual Scientific Retreat on February 27-28 in Augusta, which showcased the innovative work being performed by the institute’s member labs. The retreat featured presentations by eight Culver VDI researchers, ranging from corneal wound healing to retinopathy, as well as 25 poster presentations. The keynote address highlights work on a national or international level, and this year featured Drs. Jay and Maureen Neitz, professors


More than 40 grateful patients and other supporters of the Culver VDI met on May 10 during an intimate reception to learn about groundbreaking research benefiting vision by Culver VDI researchers. The 5th annual Friends of Vision meeting was hosted by Dr. David and Alissa Bogorad at their home. Dr. Bogorad is Professor and Vice Chair of Ophthalmology.


This past spring’s Atlanta Science Festival hosted “Optic Chiasm,” an exhibit featuring dramatic works inspired by the eye. VDI member Bill Andrews, medical illustrator and Chair of the Department of Illustration, and Mike Stanley, Chief Ophthalmic Photographer, showcased some of their works.


in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Washington in Seattle, who discussed “Reweaving the Rainbow: Gene Therapy and Its Potential to Treat Vision Disorders.”




“NOT WISHING TO PLACE HIS JUNIOR OFFICERS IN HARM’S WAY, GEN. CULVER CONDUCTED THE TESTING HIMSELF.” the time had some understanding of radiation’s effect on the body, Culver’s mission was the first glimpse into how even just the light from a nuclear blast could cause retinal and ocular damage. It led to further research into


FLASH OF LIGHT Pictured Above: Dr. James and Mrs. Jean Culver on vacation in Hawaii, 1978

It was the ‘50s, and the U.S. government was actively conducting above-ground atomic bomb testing as they sought to answer questions about the effects of the bomb and its radiation on the human body. Dr. James F. Culver, a general in the U.S. Air Force, had a frontrow seat. Culver, an ophthalmologist who graduated from the Medical College of Georgia in 1945 and joined the air force immediately afterward, took on a dangerous and highly classified mission


to learn the effects of nuclear explosive radiation to the eye. Inside a small plane filled with experimental animals, Culver navigated so close to a test-site explosion that the plane rocked violently in all directions from the force of the blast. The explosion emitted a blinding flash of light, and some animals instinctively turned away from it, suffering the fewest retinal burns. Others, however, whose curiosity surpassed their avoidance instinct, suffered severe eye damage. While scientists at

equipment that could, theoretically, protect soldiers in the event of a nuclear battle and also led Culver further into his future work in aerospace ophthalmology and with the NASA space program.

Astronaut James McDivitt, command pilot of the Gemini IV flight, receiving an eye exam from Dr. James Culver, Air Force lieutenant colonel, during the pre-flight physical examination, 1 June 1965.




DO YOU HAVE MACULAR DEGENERATION? Patients who have been diagnosed with macular degeneration (wet or dry) who are between the ages of 25 to 75 and who still hold a valid driver’s license are eligible to participate in the low-vision driving rehabilitation study. To find out more, call 706-721-1544.


Research helps patients with macular degeneration continue to drive safely For patients with age-related macular degeneration, their vision is like looking through a smudged and cloudy glass, with snatches of clear vision dotted throughout their central and peripheral vision. Everyday tasks such as driving becomes challenging, but Dr. Abiodun Akinwuntan of the Culver VDI is working on developing a driving-specific low vision rehabilitation program that can help these patients safely and successfully retain their ability to drive—so central to a high quality of life. Akinwuntan, who directs Georgia Regents University’s Driving Simulation Laboratory, became fascinated with the idea that patients could learn to compensate for their low vision through visual search clues—specific training that teaches them to focus their gaze on areas of clear vision, to slow down, and to scan over a longer distance to anticipate what may come up on the road. His study compares two teaching methods. The first group of patients receives central vision field search skills training on the useful field of view system, as well as peripheral field training on the Dynavision, an electronic board dotted


with lights designed to help improve hand-eye coordination. The second receives search skills training for central and peripheral vision within real-world environment of a driving simulator. “Our hypothesis is that both teaching methods will be helpful, but that those who train in the simulator will experience better effects,” said Akinwuntan. “As a matter of fact, our preliminary results show that participants in both groups have appreciated this intervention to help them remain safe drivers, but we’re beginning to see slightly better benefits in those who train in the simulator.” If proven, the study could help change driving-related low vision rehabilitation so the more than 11 million people currently diagnosed with macular degeneration in the U.S. alone could drive safely and continue to participate in activities of daily living. “One of the missions of the Culver VDI is to engage in high-impact research with significant clinical applications for patients with visual disorders,” said Akinwuntan. “We have the satisfaction of helping to make our roads safer as well as keeping people, who would otherwise stop driving, on the road for a longer period within a safety limit.”


Bill Andrews (above) is pictured in front of a mural by former chair of the Department of Medical Illustration, Dr. William Stenstrom. The six-foot wide mural showcases a magnified view of the retina, which averages only 1.5 inches in diameter. Even more unusual, the artwork is an image of the back of the retina, which can only be viewed using specialized equipment. By providing a monumental presence and unique perspective, the image fulfills one goal of medical illustration: allowing viewers to appreciate it in a different scale and inspiring that “a-ha” moment.


“We’re at a disadvantage because we’re using words,” said Bill Andrews with a laugh. As Interim Chair and Program Director of the Department of Medical Illustration and Culver VDI member, Andrews is fluent in the language of art, translating what he sees in the operating room or under a microscope to help viewers understand important details of medicine or medical research. Medical illustration, after all, is all about visual communication, which is why the eye is such an object of fascination to many medical illustration students. Andrews’ students often choose to draw the eye as the subject of their required illustrations. And, with his guidance—along with that of medical illustration faculty member/Culver VDI member Mike Jensen—his students also work to understand the perceptual process of vision. “Why do we see things the way we do?” said Andrews. “We try to understand how people are seeing in order to build a better illustration. As medical illustrators, our mission is to educate,

inform and to inspire, and that works a whole lot better when you understand the principles of vision.” As members of the Culver VDI, Andrews and Jensen also provide an invaluable service to researchers who may require medical illustrations to support their published research results—or who use illustrations and artwork as part of their research into the eye. It all leads to what Andrews describes as that “a-ha” moment: “All of us are a sum of our past experiences and knowledge. So that means in novel situations, all we’re doing is applying what we already know. Medical illustration can help you step outside of yourself and look at the problem from a different point of view, allowing the audience to say, ‘A-ha!’ All of a sudden, it makes sense.” The GRU Department of Medical Illustration graduates about nine students every year and is one of only four such programs in the entire U.S. It is a 63-credit, 21-month program offering a Master of Science in Medical Illustration.






Pictured Above: Dr. Amy Estes, a cornea specialist, works to improve patients’ vision and in turn, their quality of life.

Cornea specialist Dr. Amy Estes sees these problems every day: patients who come to her cornea clinic at the Georgia Regents Eye Care Center (often from hours away) with corneal conditions such as dry eye, corneal ectasia, corneal scarring, cataracts, ocular surface tumors, and corneal infections that could lead to blindness. Today, she treats these conditions with an array of specialized therapies, including corneal transplantation, cataract surgery and ocular surface reconstruction, but she believes that in her lifetime, with all the exciting work going on in the field of corneal care, many patients may one day never have to undergo a corneal transplant or other invasive surgical treatments again. It’s why Estes chose the field of opththalmology, and the cornea in particular: Although she originally thought she might go into geriatrics, Estes enjoys focusing on improving patients’ quality of life. “Whether it’s prescribing a pair of glasses or contacts, or performing a surgical procedure in the office or in the operating room, we’re often able to really improve patients’ vision and comfort so they can continue to drive, read, and do things that they enjoy,” said Estes. New Therapies for the Cornea One new therapy Estes is looking forward to offering in her clinic is called collagen crosslinking. Currently under


FDA review but already widely used in Europe, the treatment involves applying a special chemical to the eye, along with ultraviolet light, to strengthen the bonds between the cornea’s collagen fibers. The treatment has been shown to stop or slow down corneal ectasias, and may also prove useful in treating corneal infections. As the only academically based cornea clinic in this region (outside of Atlanta or Charleston), Estes’ clinic focuses on less invasive, highly specialized treatments—and new treatments are also a focus of her research with the Culver VDI. Only into her first year at the institute, she already has plans to partner with other GRU researchers and explore new treatments for herpetic eye disease, corneal wound healing and kerataconus (a type of corneal ectasia). The environment of a thriving academic medical center—and the ability to translate basic science research into the clinic to benefit her patients and families—was a major reason Estes chose to join the Georgia Regents Eye Care Center. “The VDI is an exciting resource,” she said. “It’s a tremendous advantage to have this kind of close interaction between basic science researchers and clinicians, as it provides a fantastic opportunity for patients to benefit from new diagnostic and therapeutic modalities as well as other forms of advanced care.”



YANBIN DONG, MD, PhD Georgia Prevention Center Dr. Dong is a professor of pediatrics, a molecular geneticist and cardiologist whose interests include creating a better understanding of the causes behind obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, using a combination of genetic, physiological, and clinical approaches.

Arginase/Polyamine Signaling As a Therapeutic Target For Vascular Injury In Ischemic Retinopathy,

Culver VDI Pilot Project, Priya Narayanan, PhD

Adenosine Deaminase-2 Mirna As A Prognostic Biomarker For Diabetic Retinopathy,

Culver VDI Pilot Project, Gregory Liou, PhD

The Therapeutic Effect Of Autophagy-Inducing Peptide Tat–beclin 1 in Ocular HSV-1 Infection,

Culver VDI Pilot Project, Ming Zhang, PhD


Autophagy and NLRP3 Inflammasomes in Acute Psychiatry and Health Retinal Necrosis, Behavior

Dr. Ahmed is an assistant professor and clinical and research psychologist whose interests include studying recovery and psychosocial interventions for people with schizophrenia and using mathematical models to study the latent structure and clinical correlates of psychotic disorders. He also works with patients in individual and group psychotherapy at East Central Regional Hospital.

Retinal Research Foundation, Ming Zhang, PhD

Dioleoylphosphatidylglycerol to Accelerate Corneal Wound Healing,

Culver VDI Pilot Project, Wendy Bollag, PhD

Combining Augmented Reality, Multisensory Enhancement, Visual Guidance, and Scene Description For Visual, Cognitive, and Behavioral Assistance and Rehabilitation For People With Low Vision,

Culver VDI Pilot Project, Zhiyong Yang, PhD


Retinal Endothelial Cell Barrier Dysfunction in Hyperhomocysteinemia,

Physical Therapy, Allied Health Sciences

Culver VDI Pilot Project, Amany Tawfik, PhD

Dr. Devos is an assistant professor and assistant director of the Driving Simulator Lab. His research interests include the use of augmented reality and assistive technology in neurological rehabilitation and performancebased visual scanning in visual and neurological conditions.


Molecular Basis of Inflammation in Retina and Novel Strategies for Limiting it, National Eye Institute, Pamela Martin, PhD





Azza El-Remessy, PhD

Puttur Prasad, PhD

Diego Espinosa-Heidmann, MD

John Riffle, MD

Pharmacology and Toxicology, Experimental Therapeutics, Ophthalmology

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology




Amy Estes, MD

Alan Saul, PhD



Vadivel Ganapathy, PhD

Lakshman Segar, PhD

Stephanie Goei, MD

Shruti Sharma, PhD

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Julian Nussbaum, MD

Manuela Bartoli, PhD Ophthalmology


David Bogorad, MD

Sylvia Smith, PhD


Cellular Biology and Anatomy, Ophthalmology

Wendy Bollag, PhD

Anthony Ahmed PhD


Psychiatry and Health Behavior

Kathryn Bollinger, MD

Abiodun Akinwuntan, PhD, MPH, DRS


Allied Health Sciences

Ruth Caldwell, PhD

Mohamed Al-Shabrawey, PhD

Cellular Biology and Anatomy

Oral Biology

William Caldwell, PhD

Bill Andrews, MA, CMI, FAMI

Pharmacology and Toxicology

Medical Illustration

Raymond Chong, PhD

Sally Atherton, PhD

Physical Therapy

Regents’ Professor Emerita

Mariana D’Amico, EdD, OTR/L, BCP

Babak Baban, PhD

Allied Health Sciences

Oral Biology

Hannes Devos, PhD

Experimental Therapeutics


Center for Biotechnology and Genomic Medicine

Jay Hedge, PhD

Amany Tawfik, MD


Cellular Biology and Anatomy

Michael Jensen, MS, CMI

Dilip Thomas, MD

Daniel Killingsworth, MD

Lane Ulrich, MD

Gregory Liou, PhD

Mitchell Watsky, PhD

Brendan Marshall, PhD

Zhiyong Yang, PhD

Pamela Martin, PhD

Ming Zhang, PhD

Medical Illustration





Cellular Biology and Anatomy

Cellular Biology and Anatomy


Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Cellular Biology and Anatomy

Priya Narayanan, PhD Cellular Biology and Anatomy

Tadd Patton, PhD Psychology

Physical Therapy Allied Health





Non-Profit Organization U.S. Postage


Communications and Marketing 1120 15th Street, TR-101 Augusta, Georgia 30912

Augusta, GA Permit No. 210


Wrong address? Need to update your information? Tell us by email at Go online to Or call us at 706-721-4001


The following seminars are held in room 1801 of the GRU’s Research and Education Building:


July 15, 2014 Glaucoma Proteomics and Biomarker Discovery, John Crabb, PhD Aug. 25, 2014 Guest Lecturer, M. Christine McGahan, PhD Sept. 16, 2014 Ocular Genetics, Joan O’Brien, MD

GRU Vision Spring 2014  

Our Spring newsletter is replete with information describing how the James & Jean Culver Vision Discovery Institute continues to engage and...