Ophthalmologist Receives Significant Grant to Study Rare Eye Disease

The sclera is the white supportive wall of the eye. When it becomes inflamed, typically with redness and pain, this condition is called scleritis. Karen Armbrust, MD, PhD, an assistant professor from the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Neurosciences, will conduct a population-based study to gather valuable data about this rare, yet painful and potentially vision-threatening, condition.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology and Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB) provided Dr. Armbrust with the Award for IRIS® Registry Research to study scleritis. In this 2020 application cycle, only four people in the country were granted the opportunity who will work to uncover new approaches that prevent and treat eye disease.

In the United States, scleritis has been studied predominantly through single academic centers, a consortium of a few such centers or regional databases. Now, with this large data set, the scale of studies is ramped up—and Dr. Armbrust will lead the way.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to look at a number of questions regarding scleritis. The IRIS registry compiles data from private practices and academic centers across the United States. The data in the IRIS registry provides a broad picture that can be very helpful for ophthalmologists,” Dr. Armbrust said.

Red eyes are not uncommon but typically involve superficial ocular structures and often resolve without residual problems. However, when the deeper sclera becomes inflamed, it can cause considerable morbidity. Scleritis also may be associated with systemic inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, ANCA-associated vasculitis and systemic lupus erythematosus.

Treatment for non-infectious scleritis often involves nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and/or corticosteroids, but persistent or recalcitrant disease requires additional treatment. Dr. Armbrust will evaluate which treatment options are most effective in patients with different types of scleritis. “We need a better treatment paradigm for scleritis and that is part of what I’m hoping to discover with this research,” Dr. Armbrust said.

Since scleritis is a rare condition, Dr. Armbrust will take advantage of the large volume of data in the IRIS registry to find demographic trends, analyze contradictory evidence in the current literature and revisit current ideas about scleritis. She will be asking a variety of questions: Are certain medications more effective than others? How does scleritis differ in children compared to adults? Which associated ocular features are present in scleritis patients?

This research will also help determine which patients are at increased risk for worse outcomes and, thus, require more treatment and closer monitoring. Dr. Armbrust will start working with the data this winter and anticipates several months for analysis prior to writing up her findings.

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