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Dr. Ambati’s global vision is curing blindness

By Derrick Meads and Lauren Kamas

Age related macular degeneration (AMD), is the leading cause of blindness in hundreds of thousands of people each year – and is soon to be a thing of the past -- as the discoveries of Dr. Ambati have moved us closer than ever before to a cure for this disease.

Ambati, professor of Physiology and professor and vice-chair in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, restores eyesight and is acting as a catalyst to develop science and research that helps patients worldwide.

An international authority on AMD, Ambati has made significant advances toward finding treatments for this ailment. Since coming to UK in 2001, Ambati has assembled a team of top-tier scientists and clinicians from around the world to help solve the puzzle of macular degeneration. Findings from Ambati's lab have been published in prestigious scientific journals including: Nature, Cell, Nature Medicine, The Journal of Clinical Investigation, and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Ambati’s approach to biomedical research is different than fields such as mathematics – where there is a series of steps, a proof and a conclusion. A biomedical research proof is never really attained; instead it is dispelling falsehoods through rigor, and through eliminating more and more impossibilities.

“To dispel these falsehoods you need independent means, independent ideas, and different ways of approaching the same problem. This often means bringing in people who have expertise, whether it’s in biophysics, bioengineering or other areas of science that we do not have,” said Ambati. 

Ambati is connecting the University of Kentucky globally through collaborative research with organizations such as the L V Prasad Eye Institute (LVPEI).

“The way my lab approaches science is to ask the questions without actually having all the tools at hand necessary to solve the problem. As we go along we develop, incorporate or create our techniques or collaborators, and often that means going to distant lands.”

LPVEI, located in in Hyderabad, India, is a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Prevention of Blindness that offers comprehensive patient care, sight enhancement, rehabilitation services and high-impact rural eye health programs. It also pursues cutting edge research and offers training for ophthalmic personnel at all levels.

“The collaboration will begin with faculty exchanges between the UK Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and LVPEI,” said Ambati.  “This effort aims to synergize UK’s expertise and cutting edge basic research with the immense clinical expertise and the volume of patients at LVPEI.”

Ambati explained that the hopeful outcome of this work is to bring together the non-overlapping areas of expertise – in terms of hard basic science expertise – and come up with new ideas for common and uncommon ocular problems that could not only lead to new therapies and diagnostics, but also to create new insights into fundamental biology,

 “The best things happen when there are both physical and virtual collisions of ideas. These ideas collide at interfaces, interfaces between disciplines, across lands, and people,” said Ambati.

Ambati spoke about a recent seminar that explored the significant differences between ocular tuberculosis in India and the U.S. as a great example of how there are clear interests of shared knowledge development that wouldn’t occur unless we actually collided with each other intellectually. He is a firm believer that these sorts of collisions in both spaces, physical and virtual, are essential to the multi-disciplinary team science that’s going to rule the day.

This kind of global health work, which creates these productive collisions, is also important to UK, as it helps to recruit the best students and residents.

Recently one of UK’s new faculty spent a year in Swaziland doing ophthalmology in primary care. He brought back a rich spectrum of experiences that has helped to create new links and alliances.

The University is also involved in a program called ORBIS, which is a flying hospital. ORBIS flies to different places around the world to perform surgeries, and more importantly teaches local surgeons and physicians how to perform new techniques and effectively use new technologies.

“When talking to prospective residents about this global work, their eyes light up. It helps in recruiting a higher caliber, and even more than higher caliber, a more sincere kind of individual,” said Ambati.

Ambati was born and raised in India. He is the eldest son of Prof. A. Muralimohan Rao, an Indian Institute of Technology-educated mathematician, and Gomathi Rao, a scholar in Tamil literature. He earned his electrical engineering degree at The Johns Hopkins University at the age of 17, and M.D. (magna cum laude) from SUNY Health Science Center at Brooklyn. Following his ophthalmology residency at the University of Rochester and retina fellowship at Harvard Medical School, he joined the University of Kentucky in 2001.

“You know what’s really funny – my parents came to this country in graduate school as economic refugees, and now the world is going through this economic renewing there is a lot of social and economic upheaval in many places. My parents often joke with me that they came here for their kids, and that soon we may be going back to India for our kids. Times change, and you never know what will happen globally and what not. It’s a brave new world, so that why it’s very important that you forge as many ties as possible and connect with as many people as possible. “