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Professor’s fight against leading cause of blindness earns accolade

August 25, 2021

NIU Professor Elizabeth Gaillard has gained statewide recognition for her efforts to improve the way sufferers of ocular disease are diagnosed and treated.

Professor Elizabeth Gaillard

One of the top researchers of macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy—among the leading causes of blindness—Dr. Gaillard recently won an innovation award from Illinois Innovation Network (IIN). IIN represents a group of public universities and community colleges working together to improve the state’s economy through an inclusive approach to innovation, research and education.

The IIN awards celebrate innovators and their discoveries in three areas: environment and water, food and agriculture, and health and wellness. Dr. Gaillard tied for first place in the health and wellness category and accepted the award last week during the Illinois State Fair’s Tech Prairie STEAM Expo.

The award not only honors Dr. Gaillard’s advances in her field, it provides a network of valuable connections for both her and the university, as well as Therome Innovation Partners, a startup company that she and her former Ph.D. student, Dr. Kalyan Karumanchi, launched in 2018 to commercialize her research portfolio.

Among Therome’s technology is a patented laser-scanning methodology for the eye and corresponding database to diagnose diabetes and prediabetes several years earlier than blood tests. In addition, a patented ocular drug-delivery system for those suffering from age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy has been developed.

Raised awareness of the products—transformed from research and science into real-world solutions—can help get them into the hands of those who need them and, in turn, help fight blindness.

“Something like this is such a phenomenal opportunity,” Dr. Gaillard said of the award “It can be difficult to make connections out in the local community, in the region and across the state. We have some good resources here at NIU, and the Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships has grown so much over the last year. This award is marvelous way for advertising and networking.”

The award brings recognition not only to Dr. Gaillard and her work, but to the university as a whole.

“It’s a big deal for me and Therome, and it’s a big deal for NIU, too,” Dr. Gaillard said.

Age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy both diminish vision and ultimately lead to irreversible loss of sight. Currently, the only available treatment to slow down the damage to the eye requires patients to have a drug injected directly into the eye on a monthly basis.

Dr. Gaillard’s and Dr. Karumanchi’s system delivers a time-released drug, reducing the frequency of the uncomfortable, painful shots from monthly to up to every 18 months. The shots slow down the loss of sight. Such a simple act, but so meaningful to those suffering.

The Bright Focus Foundation estimates that the number of people living with age-related macular degeneration worldwide will increase from 196 million to 288 million by 2040. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that the number of Americans with diabetic retinopathy will double from 7.7 million to 14.6 million by 2050.

“Beth’s work will have tremendous impact on those that suffer from ocular disorders, and we are thrilled that the IIN chose to recognize her and Therome’s efforts,” said Karinne Bredberg, assistant director for Commercialization and Innovation for NIU’s Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships.

“It’s always exciting to see NIU faculty being highlighted for their research and innovations, especially by a group of peers on a well-attended stage like the Illinois State Fair.”

Along with the Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships, Dr. Gaillard’s journey to the startup involved colleagues, as well as professors and students in the Colleges of Engineering and Engineering Technology and Business and the Medical Laboratory Sciences, to name a few.