New Rising Professorship Helps Turn Big Plans into Reality

Published in Wilmer - Summer 2023

In 2006, Nakul Shekhawat, M.D., M.P.H., a 19-year-old college student at the time, spent a few weeks volunteering at an ophthalmology hospital in an impoverished rural area of northern India. Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in India, and Shekhawat saw firsthand how having access to eye care, particularly cataract surgery, was transforming the lives of rural villagers.

Now, as the inaugural recipient of the Stephen F Raab and Mariellen Brickley-Raab Rising Professorship, Shekhawat, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute, will continue this work. He has partnered with Aravind Eye Hospital in India — as well as biomedical engineers and public health researchers at Johns Hopkins — to develop a telemedicine platform that will provide virtual eye screenings to rural residents in India. This will ease the significant travel burden for patients while providing much-needed ophthalmology care.

“Rising professorships enable us young researchers who are at the beginning of our careers and starting to make big plans to turn these plans into a reality,” Shekhawat says.

The Stephen F Raab and Mariellen Brickley-Raab Rising Professorship is one of six rising professorships at Wilmer. These awards, launched in 2021, aim to accelerate the careers of Wilmer’s next generation of leaders by providing seven years of funding for promising young scientists to undertake large-scale research projects.

Stephen Raab, who has been a member of Wilmer’s Board of Governors for more than 40 years, discovered Wilmer through a friend, Arnall Patz, M.D., the director of the Wilmer Eye Institute from 1979 to 1989. Raab, who has type 1 diabetes, and Patz were co-chairs of a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation conference in 1978 called “Workshop in New Research in Diabetic Retinopathy.” Raab was familiar with Johns Hopkins — he has been a fan
of the Johns Hopkins lacrosse teams since the 1960s — so when Patz asked him to join Wilmer’s board in the 1980s, he says he happily accepted.

Then last year, when Wilmer director Peter J. McDonnell, M.D. presented the opportunity to support a rising professorship, Raab and his wife, Mariellen Brickley-Raab, who is also a member of Wilmer’s Board of Governors, were drawn to do so. Brickley-Raab, a former dental hygienist, values Wilmer’s research-based approach to care and wants to support young professors who are adding to that body of work. And Raab has had positive experiences as a long-time patient at Wilmer.

“As a diabetic, you have a real chance of losing your vision to the disease,” says Brickley-Raab. “If Steve hadn’t met Dr. Patz, he wouldn’t have learned as much about Wilmer as he has, and he wouldn’t have had the expertise that we’ve had. Steve, in my mind, has always wanted to do something for Wilmer because he felt that they’ve given us and so many others so much in terms of quality of sight.”

“I have benefited from the cutting-edge research and clinical skills of multiple Wilmer doctors over my years as a patient,” adds Raab. “They have extended my years with sight and improved my quality of life so greatly. So we are overjoyed to fund this rising professorship, which allows early-career investigators to focus more of their energy on research and less on funding.”

As the inaugural recipient of this rising professorship, Shekhawat is also focusing on a second area of research: improving ophthalmologists’ ability to diagnose, assess and treat corneal infections, the most common cause of corneal blindness in the world.

First, corneal infections are difficult to identify because they could be caused by bacteria, fungi, viruses or even parasites. The traditional way to diagnose these infections involves swabbing the surface of the infected cornea, then putting that sample of tissue on a culture plate. The type of microorganism that grows on the sample will indicate the cause of the infection and help guide subsequent treatment. However, microorganisms only grow on the sample in about 60% of cases, leaving ophthalmologists unable to diagnose the cause of infection in the other 40% of cases.

“Delayed diagnosis is one of the biggest risk factors for blindness from infections, so this ends up being very consequential for patients in terms of visual outcome,” Shekhawat says.

To address this, Shekhawat, along with his colleagues in informatics and microbiology at Johns Hopkins, are working to develop more sensitive tests that can be used to perform genomic and genetic analyses of the samples. The goal is for these tests to be able to detect DNA and RNA from microorganisms, helping ophthalmologists to diagnose corneal infections much sooner.

Then, in regards to assessment, corneal infections, which look like white spots under the microscope, are challenging for ophthalmologists to accurately and consistently measure. To address this, Shekhawat is looking at how cutting-edge advances in corneal imaging, including three-dimensional scans of the cornea, could be applied to help ophthalmologists more accurately measure corneal infections and patients’ responses to treatment. “In the longer term, this will enable us to move new medicines through the drug development and FDA approval pipeline, so we have newer treatments available for patients that are hopefully more effective,” he says.

Shekhawat is grateful to the Raabs for supporting the rising professorship, which provides funding for a longer period of time than most grants.

“The short-term nature that seems to define a lot of research funding can hamper our ability to dream big and make substantive changes to our field,” Shekhawat says. “The amount of sustained support that the rising professorship provides for hiring staff to conduct clinical research, perform statistical analyses and help recruit patients for clinical studies is a huge game-changer.”