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St. John's research receives $4.8M in DOD grants

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The U.S. Department of Defense is giving $4.8 million to St. John’s Medical Research Institute for five projects that can help soldiers who have suffered eye injuries on the battlefield.

At an Oct. 26 news conference held at the St. John's Hammons Heart Institute, the St. John’s research team, led by Dr. Shachar Tauber, announced the grant, which is to be awarded and administered by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center. During the next 23 months, the team expects to develop four products that can be used in the battlefield to help save eyesight, as well as complete a study that can aid in the development of new drug treatments.

The researchers are developing two lenses - similar to contact lenses but built with electrospun nanofibers which will allow scientists to build time-release medications into the lens. One lens, a first aid lens, is being built so that it can be applied on the battlefield to stabilize the eye, providing drug delivery for between one and three days, which would allow time for a soldier to reach a center for treatment. The other, a healing lens, will be capable of providing a drug delivery system for an extended, 14-30 day timeframe.

“Instead of stabilizing the injury to allow time to get to treatment, this would be used after treatment to help modulate the wound’s healing process,” said Keela Davis, technical research director at St. John’s Medical Research Institute.

Another product under development is a corneal adhesive – which also will have drug delivery capabilities – that can be used instead of stitches. Stitches can cause scarring on the cornea, which reduces clarity of vision, Davis said, noting the adhesive would reduce scarring and improve outcomes.

The research project expected to be complete first is a passive thermal device, which is essentially a self-powered container that can keep products, including the first aid lens, between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius for up to three days. Already, amniotic membranes – contact lens-shaped treatments which are applied to eye injuries to help speed healing – are beginning to be used for eye injuries in the Ozarks, said Davis. The passive thermal device will provide medics with the means to keep amniotic membranes at the necessary temperatures so they can be used on the battlefield, she said.

One research project funded by the grant won’t include the development of a physical product, but it will allow doctors to develop drugs and treatments for eye injuries in the future. The tear proteomics research will evaluate the proteins in the tears of soldiers undergoing photorefractive keratectomy surgery.

“We study the way the eye responds to inflammation and injuries and can design, in a custom way, new drugs,” said Tauber.

Read more about the St. John’s research projects in the Nov. 1 print edition of Springfield Business Journal.

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