By Tom Still
WAUWATOSA, Wis. – A few years ago, Melissa Skala and Joe Carroll didn’t know one another. In fact, their areas of expertise as researchers didn’t seem to intersect – at least, not directly.
Today, UW-Madison professor Skala and Medical College of Wisconsin professor Carroll are co-investigators on a project with the promise of helping millions of people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired.
Their partnership is also an example of how Wisconsin’s academic research institutions can – and increasingly do – work together to solve human problems.
Skala was a highly touted recruit from Vanderbilt University who joined the private Morgridge Institute for Research three years ago as a cancer imaging investigator, a role that extends to her role on the UW-Madison’s biomedical engineering faculty.
Carroll is one of the nation’s leading scientists in “adaptive optics retinal imaging,” which can be used to treat eye conditions at the cellular level. He’s a professor of ophthalmology at MCW and an adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at Marquette University.
What pulled their work together, largely through informal contacts versus institutional channels, was a common interest in medical imaging.
Skala had developed imaging technology to help personalize cancer treatments and reduce the side effects of chemotherapy. Her technology is also being used by the UW-Madison’s McPherson Eye Research Institute to better image the progress of disease. That led to connecting with Carroll, whose research brings in patients from around the world to Milwaukee.
After a trip to Carroll’s lab that included a half-dozen of Skala’s students, work began on a project to help answer questions about the role of melanin in vision. Melanin is a compound best known for determining skin pigmentation, but it also serves a protective role in the eye by absorbing excess light that can damage the retina.
Since that first field trip, a team led by Carroll and Skala has developed an imaging technique that offers three-dimensional, color images of melanin in the eye. It marked the first time a technique called photo thermal optical coherence tomography had been applied to eye research.
It’s a breakthrough that could help millions of people, given the incidence of blindness and eye disease in the United States alone. Blindness affects one in 28 Americans over the age of 40, with cases of age-related macular degeneration expected to double by 2050 and cases of diabetic retinopathy predicted to increase four-fold by the same year. The cost of vision problems is estimated at $140 billion, which ranks fourth among chronic medical conditions.
“As the incidence and burden of these conditions is expected to dramatically increase the coming years, better tools are needed to diagnose and treat these devastating diseases,” Carroll said during a July 11 meeting of the Tech Council Innovation Network in Wauwatosa.
Eye disease is one example of how academic researchers in Wisconsin are collaborating, not just on health-related issues, but other technologies with implications for people, animals, industry and the environment.
Marshfield Clinic research scientist Scott Hebbring is working with the core computation team at Morgridge to help produce a massive database that shows connections between thousands of human diseases and known genetic markers that influence those diseases.
Susan Tsai, a surgical oncologist at MCW, is working with Skala to do more basic research around pancreatic cancer tumors. The goal is better, more personalized treatment for a disease with a high death rate. The project also is helping Skala look at disparities in urban and rural pancreatic cancer rates.
Morgridge researchers also work with other UW System schools and scientists beyond Wisconsin at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UC-Santa Barbara.
Projects aimed at optimizing battery performance involve researchers at the UW-Milwaukee, UW-Madison and Marquette. Similarly, students and faculty at UW Systems school work together on projects tied to water, energy, engineering and agriculture.
Those are a few examples of how Wisconsin’s academic researchers are working together to address real-world problems, regardless of institutional boundaries that can sometimes stifle cooperation. The more bright minds that can be recruited and retained by Wisconsin colleges and universities, the better the chances of those minds getting together for the public good.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org