close up of eye

National Institutes of Health awards Case Western Reserve University $7.3M for eye research

Grant will support examining impact of pain and inflammation on eye’s surface and possible link to diseases

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine a five-year, $7.3 million grant to identify new technology, methods and models to study the impact of inflammation and pain on eye health, specifically the surface.

“The cornea is the most densely innervated tissue in the body, yet we have a poor understanding of how structural and functional integrity is maintained at the eye surface,” said Michael Jenkins, the Dr. Donald and Ruth Weber Goodman Professor of Innovative Cardiovascular Research at the School of Medicine and principal investigator of the NIH-backed research. 

“Understanding neural control at the eye’s surface is critical to understand many diseases, including dry-eye disease, diabetes and more,” he said. “This will also help us better understand problems like corneal neuropathic pain.”

More specifically, the goal of the grant, which recently began with NIH funding from the National Eye Institute, is to better understand how the nervous system maintains eye health.

Michael Jenkins

Jenkins said the research will involve a multidisciplinary team from CWRU and Cleveland Clinic with expertise in such areas as advanced 3D microscopy, neuroscience, pain, immunology, spatial statistics and machine/deep learning, among other areas. The research team includes Marcin Golczak, Patricia Taylor and David Wilson from CWRU, and B. J. Dupps, Rony Sayegh and Carl Saab from Cleveland Clinic.  

“This team will allow us to apply several new technologies, animal models and methods to gain new insights into neural control of the corneal surface,” Jenkins said.

The eye maintains functions like blinking and tearing in response to stimuli through sensory feedback from the corneal nerves. This chain can be disrupted by damage to corneal nerves through inflammation, immune responses and more, which can further deteriorate blinking and tearing and lead to additional degradation of the nerves in a “feed-forward loop,” he said.

The researchers will investigate these processes by mapping the structure, molecular expression and function of the corneal nerves and supporting cells. They also will investigate how corneal signaling at the eye’s surface is linked to signaling in the brain’s pain centers.

The team also will investigate eye surface control under different inflammatory and pain conditions such as evaporative dry-eye disease, diabetes and bacterial keratitis to better understand how treatment options affect the eye surface control system. 

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U01EY034693. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

For more information, contact Megan Hahn at

This article was originally published Nov. 9, 2022.