Thasarat S. Vajaranant, MD, receives AGS award for research of women’s eye health

Thasarat S. Vajaranant, MDThasarat S. Vajaranant, MD
, assistant professor of ophthalmology and director of the Glaucoma Service at the Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary, was awarded a $40,000 unrestricted grant from the American Glaucoma Society (AGS) to support clinical research of women’s eye health. Dr. Vajaranant is investigating the role of female sex hormones on the aging of the optic nerve and the development of glaucoma.

Dr. Vajaranant is the first recipient of the AGS’s Thom J. Zimmerman, MD, PhD, Memorial Award, which was announced at the AGS 2013 Annual Meeting in March. The award was established by AGS and Valeant Ophthalmics, a division of Valeant Pharmaceuticals North America LLC, in memory of Dr. Zimmerman, the developer of timolol maleate

According to Dr. Vajaranant, a greater number of women are  likely to develop glaucoma because it is a disease associated with aging and, worldwide, women live longer than men.

“The average age of menopause is 51, but women with depressed estrogen levels before that age can experience early aging processes in the body, including in the eye,” Dr. Vajaranant explained. “I am researching factors related to an increased aging of the optic nerve and how those factors might make the optic nerve prone to glaucoma.”

Using data collected from the Women’s Health Initiative, a 15-year prospective study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Vajaranant plans to research glaucoma outcomes in relation to genetics, nutrition, hormones and systemic conditions. She notes there are two large NIH-funded consortia on genetics of glaucoma, but the data is limited to white women.

“I hope that, from the information in the database, my colleagues and I can also build genetic information regarding minorities, who have higher risk for glaucoma compared to whites, to elucidate how racial differences play a role in the disease,” she said.

Dr. Vajaranant is a former scholar in the NIH-K12 program at UIC, the Building Interdisciplinary Research Career in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) under the direction of Stacie Geller, PhD, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The interdisciplinary team for this proposed project includes Louis Pasquale, MD, Director of the Glaucoma Service at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, principal and co-investigator for two studies of gene-environment interactions in primary open angle glaucoma; Mary Haan, PhD, principal investigator for epidemiological studies of aging and chronic disease and the role of race/ethnicity in chronic diseases in older populations, University of California at San Francisco; Pauline Maki, PhD, Program Director of the BIRCWH program and an expert in the field of sex steroid hormones and the aging brain, University of Illinois at Chicago; and Julie Mares, MSPH, PhD, professor, an expert in the field of nutritional sciences and eye diseases, and Kristin Meyers, PhD, MPH, genetic epidemiologist, both from the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

“I am grateful for the support from the American Glaucoma Society, Valeant Ophthalmics, the Women’s Health Initiative, the BIRCWH program and my interdisciplinary research team,” Dr. Vajaranant said. “To receive an award in honor of Dr. Zimmerman — an inspiration, leader, respected clinician-scientist, innovator and inventor — is a great honor,” she said.

“Dr. Vajaranant is an outstanding young clinician scientist,” said Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary Department Chair Rohit Varma, MD, MPH. “Her research will help us better understanding the role that aging plays in the development of glaucoma”