The Class of 2021’s Justin Chang participated in the NIH Summer Internship Program studying a common cause of blindness.
Three years ago, the Class of 2021’s Justin Chang began working in the National Institutes of Health laboratory of Kapil Bharti, Ph.D., a Stadtman investigator at the National Eye Institute. They were trying to solve a tricky problem: proliferative vitreoretinopathy, or PVR, a growth of scar tissue that causes the detachment of the retina — and, for many, blindness.
It happens to between 5 percent and 10 percent of every person who undergoes retinal reattachment surgery. The only way now to treat PVR is another surgery, but that can be unsuccessful if it leads to more scar tissue growth behind the eye, a return of the original problem that causes the retina to detach again weeks or months later.
With a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a master’s degree in biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University, Chang wanted to learn more about medical research and applied for the job in Bharti’s lab in 2015, before starting medical school last fall.
This summer, Chang returned as a member of the NIH Summer Internship Program to complete his research in PVR.
“This disease happens when there’s a puncture to the eye, or a retinal detachment,” Chang explains. A considerable number of current PVR patients are members of the military who have experienced battlefield injuries. Shrapnel or other debris can cause an eye injury, or even the shock of a blast may detach the retina, Bharti says.
Bharti’s lab focuses on pharmaceutical treatments that could prevent the destructive growth of diseased retinal pigment epithelium, or RPE, cells. While healthy RPE cells protect the retina’s photoreceptors, their unchecked growth can lead to PVR. “We’re interested in how these cells divide, proliferate,” Bharti says, “and how to prevent it.”
Chang spent two years as a post-baccalaureate research fellow at the Bethesda, Maryland, lab, conducting tests to see which medications repress or encourage growth of RPE cells.
Because PVR occurs so often among veterans, the Department of Defense has placed a high priority on its research, Bharti says. A medication that already has been approved by the FDA to treat metastatic cancers appears promising in the RPE study, he adds, and may be able to treat PVR and age-related macular degeneration.
Chang moved from Taiwan to Montgomery County, Maryland, when he was 14, and his father is an internal medicine physician who practices in Taiwan. Still, eye research wasn’t on his radar until he began working in Bharti’s lab.
“I was surprised by how complicated the eye is and how many diseases I didn’t know about,” Chang says. “Initially, I didn’t look at eye research when I got my master’s.” In addition to his lab work, he had the opportunity to shadow ophthalmologists in the NIH’s pediatric eye clinic and see firsthand some unusual conditions, including a type of juvenile macular degeneration and coloboma, in which a part of the eye is missing at birth.
As he returns to the MCV Campus to begin his second year, Chang says he especially appreciates his classmates. “They’re always willing to help you. We study together, have fun together.” He is still deciding on what specialty he’d like to pursue, although ophthalmology is now definitely in the running.
Bharti calls Chang a “very capable person. Not everyone is at the same level as Justin. If he wants to come back next summer, we’d love to have him.”
By Kate Andrews