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Friday, March 29, 2013 - $1.8M NIH grant to help Oakland researcher pursue cure for keratitis

Nearly 1.5 million people across the globe develop viral keratitis each year. Of these, 40,000 are diagnosed with related visual impairment or blindness. In fact, herpes simplex keratitis (HSK) is the leading cause of corneal blindness among the world's developed nations.

Oakland University Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Susmit Suvas has long investigated the biological factors at work in this corneal disease, and aspires to find a medical intervention that will limit corneal damage and prevent blindness. 

In support of that goal, Suvas recently won a $1.8 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to research ways of inhibiting chronic inflammation of the eye that can lead to corneal blindness.

Suvas' grant request was funded based on the outcomes of a recently completed, two-year study from NIH in which he discovered that a neuropeptide called Substance P plays a central role in prolonging the corneal inflammation associated with HSK. It is this prolonged inflammation that eventually compromises the health of the eye.

"As the results came out from our two-year study, we saw that they were very exciting. But we knew we had much more work to do," Suvas said.

"I am excited that this grant will provide me the opportunity to carry out an in-depth scientific understanding of the role of neuropeptides in the cornea while the eye is fighting off viral infection, and that this insight could lead to the development of novel, translational strategies to cure herpetic keratitis."

Suvas explained that while Substance P is involved in promoting corneal inflammation after a herpes infection, it is also a critical agent in the eye's defenses against viral infection. He believes that if therapy can be developed to block the neuropeptide once the infection is cleared, continued inflammation and the possibility of further complications will be averted.

The five-year, NIH grant supporting Suvas' research will also support the involvement of two Ph.D. students, one post-doctoral student and one master's degree student. The veteran researcher said student involvement is integral to his and many other investigators' work, and that he is pleased to see that Oakland continues to attract highly successful and ambitious students working in the sciences.

"When I first came to Oakland and to the Department of Biological Sciences, I saw that the research being done here would build over time and that the quality would grow with it," Suvas said. "I saw great opportunity for growth in the department, and that is exactly what has happened."

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