Gary Conrad, a university distinguished professor at Kansas State University's Division of Biology, has received a four-year grant renewal of $1.48 million from The National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health to study the cornea.
"The NIH renewal will make Conrad's grant the longest continuously funded R01 grant in the state of Kansas at 41 years," said Jim Guikema, K-State associate vice president for research.
From the beginning, Conrad has been fascinated by the unique structure of the cornea.
"Among all body tissues, the cornea is unique in being transparent, very highly innervated, free of blood vessels and yet composed of three layers of living cells," he said.
Conrad's research on embryonic development of the eye has led to knowledge that could possibly improve LASIK surgery. He and his research associates have identified a difference in the connective tissue of normal corneas compared to those that have been cut during LASIK.
LASIK, which stands for laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis, is a surgery using a laser to reshape the cornea as an alternative to wearing glasses or contact lens. During the procedure a thin-hinged flap is cut in the front of the cornea and peeled back out of the way to allow the laser to reshape the corneal connective tissue underneath the flap. When the laser is finished the flap is pulled back to its original position.
"It was once believed that the flap would re-adhere permanently. However, the unique connective tissue of the cornea and a lack of blood vessels limit its ability to fully heal even years after the procedure," Conrad said. "A trauma to the face, such as impact from an automobile air bag provides enough force to dislodge the flap, reopening the cornea, infecting it with dirt and debris, and causing instant loss of visual acuity."
After LASIK, differences in the structure of sugar molecules made the cornea prevent cut nerve ends from regenerating, as well as preventing the flap from re-adhering. However, the National Institutes of Health grant renewal will enable the lab group to test a possible solution that would strengthen the stromal flap and allow it to permanently bind back to the cornea after LASIK, Conrad said. It uses a combination of riboflavin and UVA light to permanently cross-link the connective tissue of the flap to the underlying corneal connective tissue. The treatment is currently in clinical trials in the U.S. for another eye dysfunction known as keratoconus.
"The density of sensory nerve fibers that normally develop in our cornea is higher than anywhere else on the surface of our entire body," Conrad said. "However, they regenerate extremely slowly if they are cut, so if we could get those nerves to regenerate, it would be a major medical advance."
Since the grant began in 1971, Conrad's lab group has discovered many properties of embryonic and adult corneas. He credits these accomplishments to the research professors, postdoctoral research associates, graduate students, research assistants and undergraduates in his lab who co-author many research publications that have made continuing grant funding possible.
His closest colleagues include his wife, Abigail Conrad, a K-State molecular, cellular, and developmental biologist; Yuntao Zhang, a K-State structural carbohydrate chemist; Peter Lwigale, a 2001 K-State doctoral graduate in biology and now an assistant professor at Rice University; Scott McCall, a K-State senior in biology and biochemistry and a 2008 Goldwater Scholar from Parker, Colo.; and Conrad's first doctoral student Gerald Hart, director of the department of biological chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Md.
Conrad is known for mentoring and encouraging undergraduates in his lab. As a result, Conrad has recommended McCall for a summer position in Hart's lab, researching structural chemistry.
"Our molecular biology research is only as good as our K-State freshmen dishwashers and autoclavers, so we try to train them carefully, listen to their questions, and counsel them as our closest research colleagues," Conrad said. "They teach us many things."