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Calvin Earns $500k Grant for Eye Research
updated April 3, 2007

Lacrimal gland ducts stained red and green for proteins that transport potassium from the blood into the tears (photomicrograph prepared by former Calvin student Holly Hoffman)A National Eye Institute grant to Calvin College of more than $500,000 may someday lead to a better understanding of how the eye is protected from ultraviolet radiation, and the role of high levels of potassium in the tears.

Calvin biology professor John Ubels and Calvin physics professor Loren Haarsma will team with a cadre of student researchers over the next three years for a research project that is at the leading edge of this sort of eye research.

Their work is being supported by a $564,527 grant from the Department of Health & Human Services through the National Eye Institute, money that will support Ubels, Haarsma and several student researchers (already Calvin juniors David Will and Katie DeYoung have been hired to be part of the project this coming summer).

Says Haarsma: "Students in the summer will work for 10 weeks, earn $3,800 and gain invaluable research experience that will serve them well in their post-Calvin plans."

With this new, three-year project Ubels, Haarsma and their student colleagues will explore the role of high potassium levels in tears and how those high potassium levels might help the cornea protect the lens and the retina from ultraviolet radiation, particularly the UV radiation from the sun.

The research is innovative says Ubels.

"No one in the country," he says, "has really looked at this combination in the ways we plan to look at it."

And the work has some possible significant outcomes.

"If the high potassium in tears is important for the health of the ocular surface," Ubels says, "this information will be useful in the development of improved treatments for dry eye disease."

Dry eye diseases impact some 10 to 14 million people, most of them over the age of 40, in the U.S. alone. Many of these patients are post-menopausal women who have a condition known as Sjogren's Syndrome -- a combination of dry-eye and dry-mouth.

Ubels and Haarsma know that potassium exists in the tears at a concentration some four times higher than in any of the human body's other extracellular fluids, including blood.

Now they plan to study why that is and what role potassium might have in protecting the human eye from the sun.

Photomicrograph of the corneal epithelium (blue stained cells), the outer cell layer of the cornea that may be protected from UV radiation by the high concentration of potassium in the tears."A typical sunny day," says Ubels, "should cause corneal cells to die. But they don't. Something is happening to protect them. We think it's potassium."

Indeed Ubels says UV radiation can actually cause cells to lose potassium which then can cause a process called apoptosis, or cellular suicide.

"Apoptosis happens in other places in our body," he says, "and often it's an important funtion. But if it happens in the cornea it's a big problem. We think that the high potassium in tears prevents loss of potassium from inside the corneal cells in response to UV radiation, thereby preventing cell death."

Measuring potassium production by the lacrimal gland, which secretes the tears, and loss from the corneal cells in response to UV will be Haarsma's role in the upcoming research.

"There's a mechanism by which the lacrimal gland produces high potassium," he says, "and we have the equipment at Calvin, thanks to an NSF grant we received last year, by which to study that mechanism."

That equipment is an electrophysiology patch-clamp rig and it will be part of an arsenal of equipment that Haarsma, Ubels, Will and DeYoung will have at their disposal at Calvin (much of which has been purchased over the last 10 years thanks to a variety of National Science Foundation grants to the college).

In fact, say Haarsma and Ubels, peer reviewers of the grant proposal Calvin sent to the National Eye Institute commented favorably on both the research opportunities available for undergrads at Calvin and the facilities in which those undergrads are able to work.

"It's not common for students to have access to what our students have access to," says Haarsma.

Will, a double major in biology and chemistry, agrees with Haarsma's assessment.

The Prairie View, Ill., native says the project appealed to him because of its ability to incoorperate many of the major sciences into it.

"The technique used, patch clamping," he says, "relies mostly on a deep understanding of physics. The pathways being explored are biochemical in nature, and this all relates to the biological understanding of the eye."

He also appreciates how at Calvin his two deep passions, science and faith, can come together.

"I love science and research," he says, "because they help me see God in a more complete way. This research is really a direct way of learning and exploring his world. I am so grateful to Calvin for providing this sort of opportunity."

DeYoung, a biology major, echoes Will.

"I like that Calvin has so many opportunities for undergrads to work with professors on important project," she says, "opportunities that would not be available at a larger university. At the same time, Calvin possesses much of the lab equipment that a larger school would have."

For Ubels the upcoming project - work will begin June 1 - is not only a plus for his student colleagues, but also an affirmation of Calvin's robust sabbatical program for faculty.

He spent a recent such sabbatical at the VanAndel Research Institute in Grand Rapids and the upcoming project at Calvin will continue efforts begun there.

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