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A Semi-Annual Publication of the Georgia Regents University James & Jean Culver Vision Discovery Institute





Welcome, colleagues and friends! Since our last update in the spring, the James & Jean Culver Vision Discovery Institute has seen many accomplishments, and we thank you as always for sharing our passion for vision research and outstanding ophthalmic care. Some examples of what’s new: New research: Our research collaborations continue to uncover new findings to help prevent or treat sightthreatening diseases. Some recent focus areas include neural circuitry; cytomegalovirus retinitis, a common viral infection of the retina; and other research vital to understanding how the retina responds to injury and might be repaired. Several translational collaborations are also ongoing in the Culver VDI, serving as a strategic cornerstone for future advancements. New people: We are very glad to welcome new colleagues such as Dr. Yutau Liu, Associate Professor of Cellular Biology and Anatomy. Liu’s research in human genetics is revealing vital knowledge that could one day help regenerate the cornea (see page 10). For a full list of our new and current faculty, see page 14. New programs: We are particularly proud of our programs, which meet the needs of our patients and support our community. Our Visionary Warriors Program incorporates the inspirational philosophy of the martial arts with activities to assist youngsters with visual disabilities (see page 5). Many of our patients require special vision rehabilitation assistance, so we are pleased to report that our Low Vision Rehabilitation Clinic is expanding its services (see page 11). This great work, however, could not continue without your support. We are so grateful for your ongoing involvement in the Culver VDI, and give special thanks to the External Advisory Board for its leadership and guidance as we continue to secure resources for Culver VDI initiatives. We are also grateful for Rachel Robertson and the many other patients who have helped advance our mission (see page 4). As this holiday season unfolds, you have our heartfelt thanks and gratitude for your faith, support, and partnership.


IN BRIEF _________________ 5 CULVER SPOTLIGHT_______ 6 DISCOVERIES_____________10 PROGRAMS______________ 11 FACULTY SPOTLIGHT______ 12

Very best wishes for a happy holiday!


Drs. Sylvia Smith and Julian Nussbaum Co-Directors, Culver VDI

Dr. James Culver’s love of tinkering with cars yielded exciting breakthroughs in ophthalmology. Read more on page 6.


GIVING __________________ 4

Vision is published biannually by the Medical College of Georgia Department of Ophthalmology and the Georgia Regents University Office of Communications and Marketing. Please direct comments or questions to Editor Christine Hurley Deriso at or 706-721-2124.

NEW FACES______________ 13 NEW GRANTS____________ 13 FACULTY MEMBERS _______14 DON’T MISS______________16







Grateful patient Rachel Robertson hopes her gift to the Culver VDI will help others with retina issues.

To support the Culver VDI, contact David Cantrell, Major Gifts Officer, at 706-721-1817 or


As a young girl growing up off Washington Road in the 1930s and ’40s, Rachel Robertson remembers taking the bus from her afterschool job at Silver’s Five and Ten, then walking a mile of dirt road to get home. School was another walk, where she’d often bring in buckets of coal to try to earn brownie points. “I didn’t like math,” said Rachel with a laugh. “But it didn’t help.” Math may not have been her forte, but thanks to a life of hard work with husband Vincent, Robertson recently gave a major gift to support retinal research at the Culver VDI, creating the Rachel Robertson Fund for Retinal Research. Rachel still tears up when talking about Vincent, who passed away nine years ago. “Take care of my little girl,” he would say to VDI Co-Director Julian Nussbaum when accompanying his wife to her appointments. The couple met when Vincent was at Oliver General Hospital recovering from an air crash, and Rachel would fan him and entertain him to get his mind off his full body cast. After marriage, the two had five children and, along with an electrical contracting company, managed several Huddle House franchises and maintained real estate


along Washington Road in Evans. Rachel still lives on the same property where she grew up, although the landscape today is very different. Over a decade ago, Rachel was referred to Nussbaum and the Georgia Regents Eye Care Center after a surgery caused a complex recurrent retinal detachment in her right eye. Although the vision in that eye never recovered, Nussbaum has helped improve Rachel’s quality of life, treating recurring inflammation and pain and carefully maintaining the vision in her left eye, despite some age-related retinal problems. Said Rachel, “I know that when I come down here, he helps me and sends me where I need to go.” Rachel considers it a privilege to help support the retinal research of Nussbaum and his colleagues. “I knew it in my mind all the time,” she said. “He is just kind, he knows what he is doing, and he’s helped me. . . . I wanted to do it so that I could help somebody else with these same eye problems.”




Many don’t know that martial artist and actor Bruce Lee was severely nearsighted, a fact that inspired the Culver VDI to offer a program to boost the self-confidence of children in the CSRA with vision problems. In November, the institute hosted the second annual Visionary Warriors camp, a free weekend-long event that helps children use martial arts to overcome challenges. More than 20 attended

Dr. Robert B. Nussenblatt, Chief of the Laboratory of Immunology for the National Eye Institute, will discuss the immunology and treatment of age-related macular degeneration as guest speaker of the Culver VDI Retreat March 11-12. Nussenblatt, world-renowned for his clinical studies in ocular immunology, is also Senior Advisor to the

Dr. Julian Nussbaum, VDI Co-Director and Chairman of the Medical College of Georgia Department of Ophthalmology, recently discussed macular degeneration as guest speaker of the inaugural meeting of Ladies of the Landing, an organization at Reynolds Plantation

this year’s camp, which was supported by sponsors and held in partnership with the Superior Academy of Martial Arts in Evans.

institute’s Deputy Director of Intramural Research. The retreat, which will be held in the Jaguar Student Activities Center Ballroom on GRU’s Summerville Campus, will also feature Dr. Folasade Akinsola, Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Lagos, discussing ophthalmic practices through the ages in Africa.

in Greensboro, Ga. More than 100 attended.




“FOR CULVER, THE FIRST TIME HE USED THE SCOPE TO SEE THE PERIPHERY OF THE EYE WAS INCREDIBLE...” devices are still used by retinal surgeons worldwide. It’s said that Schepens built his prototype from metal parts collected on the streets of London during the Blitz, and Culver and his resident partner were inspired. Unable to afford an indirect ophthalmoscope


A WHOLE NEW WORLD Dr. James Culver, for whom the James & Jean Culver Vision Discovery Institute is named, helped revolutionize retinal surgery with his contributions to ophthalmology.

Along with his groundbreaking work in ophthalmology, Dr. James Culver has long been known for a love of classic automobiles. An avid collector, he and wife Jean have had up to 20 in their collection, ranging from Mercedes, Jaguars, the Karmann Ghia and his beloved Porsches, including a sleek orange model that once earned him first prize and best in show at a Monterey Bay Region Porsche Club of America competition. Culver’s love of restoring and “tinkering” with these


classic beauties actually tells a fascinating story of ingenuity that ties into his work in ophthalmology. As a young resident, he had the opportunity to meet Dr. Charles Schepens, a Belgian (and later American) ophthalmologist widely regarded as the father of modern retinal surgery. Schepens invented the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope, which revolutionized the ability to examine the interior of the eye, offering a broad view from the back to the peripheral retina. Similar

of their own, they worked out how Schepens built his model and used parts from the local RadioShack to build their own version, called the Snooperscope. For Culver, the first time he used the scope to see the periphery of the eye was incredible—like a

whole new world opening up, allowing him to view structures he’d never seen before. Culver and his partner used the scope to diagnose and treat patients, then published their findings in the American Journal of Ophthalmology in the

1940s. Their work was another voice confirming the importance of examining the entire retina to properly diagnose and treat patients – and would fuel Culver’s passion for “tinkering” and innovating, foreshadowing his work in the space program.

A FEW OF DR. CULVER’S FAVORITE THINGS The Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and the binocular indirect ophthalmoscope invented by Dr. Charles Schepens.







JOIN THIS STUDY If you or a family member are affected by keratoconus and are interested in Liu’s project, contact him at 706-721-2015 or

Dr. Yutao Liu is peering into the genetic causes of an often-ignored corneal disease. Is corneal regeneration possible in the future? Dr. Yutao Liu, a human geneticist, certainly hopes so. As a member of the Culver VDI, Liu is probing the genetic causes of keratoconus, a disease of the cornea that affects up to 1 in 500 Americans. If you’ve never heard of the condition, you’re not alone: Said Liu, “So far, we don’t know very much about this disease, and genetics-wise, very little. It’s highly understudied.” For Liu, that has been part of the attraction. Although much of his research previously focused on age-related conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Liu became fascinated with keratoconus while sequencing families from Saudi Arabia for genetic causes of glaucoma. Keratoconus is a young person’s disease, often presenting during adolescence and progressing over the next decade or two. The disease causes a part of the cornea to thin, then bulge out, taking on a coneshaped appearance. Because the cornea is the window to the eyes, this distortion changes eyes’ ability to focus, leading to nearsightedness (myopia), double vision, glare, blurred vision (astigmatism) and, if not caught early, vision


loss that can greatly impact quality of life. Up to 15 percent of keratoconus patients will require a corneal transplant, and as many as half of them may experience transplant rejection, necessitating a second or even third procedure. Liu and Dr. Amy Estes, a corneal specialist at the Georgia Regents Eye Care Center, are enlisting keratoconus patients and their families for a project to track the genetic code of this disease. Liu hopes to use second-generation sequencing technology to sequence the entire genome of patients, their parents, and siblings, as well as any other family members affected by the disease. Liu’s first goal is a genetic screening test to prevent misdiagnoses and ensure early access to corrective contact lenses. His second goal focuses on the bigger picture: gene therapy to regenerate the cornea, curing keratoconus once and for all. “If we could identify a gene to regulate cornea growth or thickness – let’s say, find some protein that would increase cornea thickness – that would be the ideal fix.”

GRU’s Low Vision Rehabilitation Program is a lifeline for patients looking to live independently again. “I would love to be able to get around better.” “I love to cook, but it’s not safe for me anymore.” “I miss being able to do my crossword puzzles.” As Director of the GRU Low Vision Rehabilitation Program, Mallory Lanier listens intently as patients losing their eyesight to macular degeneration, glaucoma, or diabetic retinopathy discuss their hopes for rehabilitation. “We can’t make their vision better,” said Lanier, an occupational therapist, “but we can figure out how to use their remaining vision and modify their environment in ways to make their lives easier and make them more independent.” Inside Lanier’s clinic, a Dynavision board lights up, improving visual scanning and reaction time, while a BioSway works on balance. Down the hall, a mock kitchen, grocery store, restaurant, and bank – donated by Publix and other sponsors – allow patients to practice techniques to ease cooking, shopping, dining out, and banking. Lanier also works

To support programs and resources for low-vision patients, contact GRU Director of Development David Cantrell at 706-721-1817.


with patients at home on similar skills. Patients can also try out an array of tools and gadgets at the clinic to consider purchasing for home use. Examples include magnifiers, highwattage lightbulbs, talking alarm clocks, raised labels, and guides to ease signing documents. Limited grant funding is available to help cover the costs for low-income patients, and Lanier hopes additional support will fund a lowvision store or loaner program for such devices. “We ask patients what they miss the most,” said Lanier. “One of my patients said one of the saddest things: ‘I can’t look at pictures of my grandchildren anymore.’ It was heartbreaking. We want to help them hold on to those daily living skills and those things that are important to them as long as they can.” For more information or to refer a patient to the Low Vision Rehabilitation Clinic, call 706-721-2020.






Dr. Diego Espinosa-Heidmann notes his love of challenges in researching the retina.

The path to a medical career is challenging under any circumstances, but a GRU ophthalmologist has endured a particularly arduous trek to reach his destination. After completing a medical degree, ophthalmology residency, and fellowship in vitreoretinal diseases in Colombia and Ecuador, Dr. Diego Espinosa-Heidmann came to the United States to do it all again. A six-month PanAmerican Research Scholarship at the renowned Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami led to a three-year postdoctoral fellowship there in macular diseases. Next came a general surgery internship, ophthalmology residency at GRU, then simultaneous medical and surgical retinal fellowships at Duke Eye Center and West Virginia Eye Institute, respectively. Today, EspinosaHeidmann is back at GRU as an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology and vitreo-retinal specialist at Georgia Regents Eye Care Center. One thing that hasn’t changed throughout his education and training has been his single-minded focus on the retina. “I got introduced to the retina world very early,” said Espinosa-Heidmann, who credits a visiting lecturer in Colombia for sparking his interest. “It’s a very challenging part of the eye, and I like challenges. Anything can happen there.” Solving a Puzzle The retina is difficult not only to treat, but even to examine, requiring


specialized skills and equipment to properly view the internal structure of the eye. EspinosaHeidmann sees everyone from infants to the elderly to treat conditions including retinopathy of prematurity, retinal detachments, vascular disorders, central retinal vein occlusions, retinal vasculopathies and dystrophies, degenerative and inflammatory processes in the retina, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and more. He is also the only specialist at the eye center who treats uveitis, inflammation of the intermediate layer of the eye. Espinosa-Heidmann, who began researching agerelated macular degeneration at Bascom Palmer and Duke, is continuing this work through the Culver VDI, pushing to identify the mechanism behind the disease that leads to vision loss. “Macular degeneration is the number-one cause of vision loss in elderly people,” he said. “It’s currently a public health problem not only in this country but worldwide.” For this dedicated researcher and physician, investigating the retina and developing better treatments is an endlessly intriguing puzzle to solve. “The retina is a fascinating and challenging organ,” he said. “Gaining further knowledge in this area of practice is something I was looking forward to and why I took the challenge of coming here.”



DIANA GUTSAEVA, PhD Ophthalmology Gutsaeva, who has a joint appointment in the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, researches hyperbaric oxygenation and cerebrovascular circulation.


Performance-based Visual Field Testing to Detect Driving Impairments in Individuals with Glaucoma, Fight for Sight, Hannes Devos, PhD

Vitamin D Methylome and CVD Risk Profile in Overweight/Obese African Americans,

American Heart Association, Yanbin Dong, MD, PhD

A Novel Dataset of Structured Probability Distributions in Natural Scenes,

Army Research Office, Zhiyong Yang, PhD

Ophthalmology Fishbein, Associate Professor of Ophthalmology, specializes in glaucoma. His other interests include the optic disk and fluorescein angiography.

Mapping Zebrafish Neural Circuitry with Transsynaptic Virus,

National Eye Institute, Yu Chin (Albert) Pan, PhD

MR-Compatible Integrated Eye Track System,

Army Research Office, Jay Hegde, PhD

PRIYA NARAYANAN, PhD College of Allied Health Sciences Narayanan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy, researches retinopathy of prematurity, hyperoxia, cytoprotection, and problems of the retina. She also has an appointment in the Department of Cellular Biology and Anatomy.

AMANY TAWFIK, MD College of Dental Medicine Tawfik, Assistant Professor in the Department of Oral Biology, studies diseases of the retina.







Stephanie Goei, MD

Alan Saul, PhD



Diana Gutsaeva, PhD

Lakshman Segar, PhD


Vascular Biology

Jay Hegde, PhD

Nilkantha Sen, PhD


Molecular Medicine and Genetics

Michael Jensen, MD, CMI

Shruti Sharma, PhD

Medical Illustration

Biotechnology and Genomic Medicine

Daniel Killingsworth, MD

Sylvia Smith, PhD


Cellular Biology and Anatomy

Gregory Liou, PhD Abiodun Akinwuntan, PhD, MPH, DRS, Allied Health Sciences

Ruth Caldwell, PhD

Mohamed Al-Shabrawey, PhD

William Caldwell, PhD

Oral Biology

Pharmacology and Toxicology

Bill Andrews, MA, CMI, FAMI

Raymond Chong, PhD

Medical Illustration

Physical Therapy

Cellular Biology and Anatomy

Sally Atherton, PhD

Hannes Devos, PT, PhD

Regents’ Professor Emerita

Allied Health Sciences

Babak Baban, PhD

Yanbin Dong, MD, PhD

Oral Biology

Georgia Prevention Center

Manuela Bartoli, PhD

Azza El-Remessy, PhD


Pharmacology and Toxicology

David Bogorad, MD

Diego Espionsa-Heidmann, MD



Wendy Bollag, PhD

Amy Estes, MD



Kathryn Bollinger, MD

Sumner Fishbein, MD



Julia Brittain, PhD

Vadivel Ganapathy, PhD

Cellular Biology and Anatomy

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology


Amany Tawfik, MD


Oral Biology

Yutao Liu, MD, PhD

Dilip Thomas, MD

Cellular Biology and Anatomy


Brendan Marshall, PhD

Lane Ulrich, MD

Cellular Biology and Anatomy


Pamela Martin, PhD

Mitchell Watksy, PhD

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Cellular Biology and Anatomy

Priya Narayanan Namboothiri, PhD, Cellular Biology and Anatomy

Zhiyong Yang, PhD

Julian Nussbaum, MD

Ming Zhang, PhD



Cellular Biology and Anatomy

Albert Pan, PhD Molecular Medicine and Genetics

Tadd Patton, PhD Psychology

Puttur Prasad, PhD

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

John Riffle, MD Ophthalmology

Peter Rosen, MD Ophthalmology




Non-Profit Organization U.S. Postage

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



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

EVENT LISTINGS These upcoming seminars will be held in GRU’s Lee Auditorium from 4 to 5 p.m.:


Jan. 20, 2015 Delta Opioid Receptors Agonists: Potential Candidates for Glaucoma Therapy Shahid Husain, PhD Medical University of South Carolina Feb. 17, 2015 What Have We Learned From the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) and AREDS2, Beyond Nutrition and Macular Degeneration? Emily Chew, MD National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health April 21, 2015 Molecular Imaging of Retinal Disease Ashwath Jayagopal, PhD Vanderbilt Eye Institute Visit for information on future events.

Vision, Winter 2015  

A Semi-Annual Publication of the Georgia Regents University James & Jean Culver Vision Discovery Institute.