Student researcher seeks to understand glaucoma

It often develops slowly, undetectably. Glaucoma, the “sneak thief of vision,” refers to a medical condition that progressively causes damage to the optic nerve, potentially leading to a loss of vision in later years.

For alumna Yuxi Zheng, this silent thief serves as a source of intrigue, adding to her interest in studying vision-related deficiencies.

During her first year at Case Western Reserve University, Zheng became involved with Case for Sight, a service-oriented vision advocacy student group.

As she volunteered with local organizations serving the visually-impaired, Zheng decided to pursue her interest further, which took her to the translational laboratory of Douglas Rhee, the chairman of the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences at University Hospitals Case Medical Center.

Although she is now involved in several different projects under Rhee’s mentorship, Zheng works primarily in research devoted to understanding what is going wrong in the body and how it is doing so in people suffering from primary open-angle glaucoma.

According to Zheng, this initial understanding of glaucoma will perhaps pave the way for “some sort of drug target that we can use that might help change the direct mechanism of glaucoma to reduce some of the symptoms.”

“The primary objective, ultimately, is to first of all elucidate the mechanism and the pathophysiology of primary open-angle glaucoma,” Zheng said. “And second of all, to take that mechanism and figure out what parts of it we can change in order to prevent glaucoma from progressing and causing any sort of nerve damage. “

Currently, Zheng is inducing a disease model of glaucoma in cells to study them in relation to various protein targets that were studied in the past. In addition to the disease model, there are numerous other models, such as mouse models and human tissues, that are used as media through which various proteins are added.

Specifically, Zheng assists in studying the function of Secreted Protein, Acidic and Cysteine-Rich (SPARC) within the nucleus. Understanding SPARC may lead to the targeted therapeutic treatment of primary open-angle glaucoma.
“One of the most important things that I’ve learned in this process, in being in a basic science translational lab, is that research is a very long process … but you have to hold on to those moments where things work out,” Zheng said.

Zheng feels that the most rewarding part of her experience with research was her interactions with peers and mentors.

“I learned so much by just being in lab, [and] not just about research and about glaucoma and about ophthalmology, but about what it’s like to be a med student or what it’s like to be a research assistant or a department chair,” Zheng said. “I’ve learned a lot from the people around me and I think that’s my favorite part of research.”

Zheng, who graduated with a degree in biochemistry this past December, is planning to attend medical school in the future. Because of the balance of the surgical and clinical aspects within the specialty, Zheng may even decide to pursue ophthalmology when the time comes to choose.