Tag Archives: Vision Research Center

SOM researcher develops technology for early detection of Alzheimer’s

Patients can be tested for early-stage Alzheimer’s disease with a microperimeter, a machine already used regularly in eye exams.
Koulen, Peter
Peter Koulen, Ph.D.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5-million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease, which is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. At UMKC School of Medicine, researcher Peter Koulen, Ph.D., has found an innovative way to diagnose the early stages of the disease – with an eye exam.

The test was developed at the School of Medicine’s Vision Research Center, where Koulen serves as director of basic research. It provides a non-invasive, fast-screening tool for early detection of Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer’s.

Koulen’s work received a patent in January and has been attracting attention since. With support from the university’s Office of Technology Commercialization, it is now drawing interest from local manufacturers and diagnostic companies.

Koulen said the technology has received overtures from local investors interested in forming a startup company to license and further develop it, as well.

“There are business people now on our doorstep,” he said.

The test uses a microperimeter, a machine routinely used in eye exams to evaluate retina function, and typically takes less than half an hour.

And it is a relatively simple test for patients. One looks into the machine and presses a button when they see a flash of light. A computer program progresses through a series of flashing lights in various locations and intensities to measure the person’s retinal function.

“This is a technology that is already widely used by ophthalmologists,” Koulen said. “Over the years, we’ve found some different uses for it, and the Alzheimer’s diagnostics is one example of that. It’s basically a boring video game that you play for a few minutes.”

Because it was developed through clinical studies with patients and subjects, the transition from discovery to use in clinics could be relatively short. Compare that to other research, like creating a cancer drug, which could take decades of development.

“We’ve worked about half a decade on this,” Koulen said.

The technology evolved through researching therapies for glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, major eye diseases affecting the retina. These have been the focus of much of Koulen’s work at UMKC since joining the Vision Research Center in 2009.

The retina, a light-sensitive tissue, is part of the body’s central nervous system and is connected to the brain. Koulen and his team spent about seven years developing a still-growing database to define a baseline for healthy retina function. Using microperimetry, they were able to recognize subtle deviations from those baseline figures beyond normal aging. They linked those deviations to what they realized could be indicators of early-stage Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment.

“We were able to pick up that these patients very likely had the neurological disorder before the neurologist was able to diagnose the very earliest forms of the disease,” Koulen said.

There is no single exam for diagnosing Alzheimer’s. The current method is an often cumbersome, time-consuming process of eliminating other potential causes of a neurological disorder. Results can be inconclusive until the disease has progressed to a more-advanced stage. By that point, treatment and patient care has become a primary concern.

A more rapid and conclusive diagnosis is possible with the test Koulen has developed. It can easily be given in a clinic or other settings. That could make the technology enticing for investors.

“The nice thing about conducting the diagnostics in the clinic is that they’re non-invasive,” Koulen said. “You don’t have to draw blood. You don’t need anesthesia. It’s basically a very complicated eye exam, but it’s still an eye exam.”

UMKC Vision researchers receive National Eye Institute funding for novel glaucoma therapy

Peter Koulen, Ph.D.
Peter Koulen, Ph.D.

Researchers at the UMKC School of Medicine Vision Research Center have received nearly $1 million in funding to develop a novel drug that would protect the vision of glaucoma patients.

The five-year, $970,325 project funded by the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health will support efforts led by Peter Koulen, Ph.D., professor and Felix and Carmen Sabates Missouri Endowed Chair at the Vision Research Center. Koulen is also director of basic research at the Vision Research Center.

Glaucoma is the second-leading cause of vision loss in the United States. Once patients are diagnosed with the disease it affects them for the rest of their lives because there is no known cure for the disease. Current therapies used to manage the disease often fail over time, and, therefore, there is a great clinical need for alternative methods that more effectively and safely treat glaucoma and prevent loss of vision.

The new project addresses this urgent clinical need. Focusing on developing a new pharmacological intervention to control the degeneration of nerve cells in the retina caused by glaucoma could help many. More than 3 million Americans suffer from glaucoma. That number is expected to increase to more than 6 million by 2050.

“The resulting medications will potentially be both preventative and therapeutic, while complimenting existing treatments, which lower high pressure in the eye,” Koulen said.

UMKC researchers collaborating on the study are part of a large interdisciplinary consortium of scientists with related expertise in ophthalmology, medicinal chemistry, biopharmaceutics and proteomics.

Preclinical testing of the new therapy, including drug transport and distribution studies, will determine its effectiveness in terminating or possibly preventing glaucoma-associated loss of nerve cells. The goal is to generate data to support the future clinical development and testing of the new drug and move the project to phase 1 or 2 clinical trials.

Determining how and to what extent nerve cells in the retina and visual function are protected including associated biopharmaceutical and pharmacological parameters will indicate the potential of the new drug as an effective glaucoma therapy.

The research is a collaboration with researchers at the University of North Texas Health Science Center under NEI grant #R01EY027005.


New Discoveries & Developments


  • In collaboration with organic chemists, we discovered a new promising approach to treat the inflammatory component of glaucoma. This could help us generate new glaucoma drugs complementary to existing therapies and protecting the vision of patients more effectively.
  • One new compound with the potential to become a novel drug for diabetic retinopathy by protecting the nerve cells in the eye.
  • A medical device for patients with diabetes that would allow the physician to assess the risk for diabetic retinopathy, and would allow the patient to continuously monitor the disease’s progress and therapy success through a simple blood test requiring only a finger prick blood sample.
  • Two new potential drugs to treat the dry form of AMD , one new potential drug to treat diabetic retinopathy caused by Type 1 diabetes and two new potential drugs to treat glaucoma are in advanced stages of development.
  • Two new drug delivery approaches for established wet AMD drugs that would eliminate the need for frequent injections in the eye.
  • A medical device for AMD patients and those with occlusion of their retinal blood vessels which could ultimately eliminate lengthy, invasive procedures.
  • A new drug delivery approach for established glaucoma drugs that would eliminate the need for daily eye drops– specifically, we are looking to turn glaucoma drugs into a slow release version administered only a few times per year.
  • A medical device that will reduce the pressure in the eye of patients for which conventional glaucoma drug treatment failed and surgery is the only option.

Vision Research Center students awarded university research grants

Gerdes_Krause_research awards_2016
Bryan Gerdes, left, and Jacob Kraus, standing, have received UMKC School of Graduate Studies Research Awards.

Two graduate students from UMKC’s Interdisciplinary Studies Ph.D. program, who conduct their research at the School of Medicine’s Vision Research Center, have received UMKC School of Graduate Studies Research Awards.

Bryan Gerdes and Jacob Kraus, both working on their PhDs under the mentorship of Peter Koulen, PhD, director of basic research at the Vision Research Center, received awards for 2016-2017.

Gerdes received an award for his project on the identification of novel cellular pathways controlling oxidative stress in nerve cells. Kraus is studying the mechanisms of action of neuro-protective compounds for his PhD thesis.

The research awards are designed to elevate the visibility of research and the economic development activities taking place at the university. Recipients present their work at the annual Community of Scholars Symposium and Awards Ceremony sponsored each spring by the School of Graduate Studies.