The Catholic University of America

June 27, 2007

CUA Awarded $380,000 in Grants for Medical Research

Jessica Ramella-Roman

Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Jessica Ramella-Roman has received two prestigious grants totaling $380,000 to conduct medical research in the prevention of diabetes-related blindness and the care of persons with spinal injuries.

A $230,000 Early Career Award from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation will fund two years of research related to measuring oxygen levels in the retina of diabetes patients. A second grant - $150,000 from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation - will fund two years of research by Ramella-Roman and her co-investigator, CUA Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering Joseph Hidler, into pressure sores.

Complications from pressure sores - one of the biggest problems facing spinal cord injury victims - led to the 2004 death of actor Christopher Reeve, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 1995.

A common complication of diabetes is loss of vision and eventual blindness. Recently, other researchers found a correlation between oxygen treatments and improved vision in some diabetes patients, yet there has been no way to measure oxygen levels in the entire retina non-invasively.

That's where Professor Ramella-Roman, an expert in bio optics - the study of the interaction between light and body tissue for medical purposes - comes in.

In collaboration with CUA electrical engineering faculty Mark Mirotznik and Scott Mathews, she has created an instrument to measure oxygen in the retina. This will help doctors determine the actual relationship between oxygen flow and vision loss, which could be used to stave off blindness for many diabetes patients.

Regarding the second grant, one of the factors that Ramella-Roman and Hidler believe leads to pressure sores is a condition called autonomic dysreflexia, which often occurs in individuals with spinal cord injuries in their upper back or neck.

Since the lower extremities can no longer communicate with the brain due to the injury, the body's natural neurological response incorrectly responds to any stressful stimulation - even the need to urinate - by constricting the blood vessels in parts of the body below the injury site. Because blood flow is reduced, less oxygen reaches soft tissues such as the skin, ultimately leading to pressure sores.

To investigate this phenomenon, Ramella-Roman has invented a novel fiber-optics-based sensor that measures the oxygen levels in soft tissue up to a centimeter under the skin. She and Hidler will use the device on a group of spinal cord-injured subjects to measure the extent to which autonomic dysreflexia is causing changes in skin oxygen levels and thus making the patients' skin more susceptible to pressure sores.

The two professors' previous research on one patient in whom they artificially induced a single episode of autonomic disreflexia found that oxygen levels dropped by as much as 40 percent in the lower extremities and blood flow dropped by as much as 60 percent.

One of the possible results of the research findings will be to educate individuals with spinal cord injuries on perceiving and ultimately controlling episodes of autonomic dysreflexia, which may result in the prevention of pressure ulcers.

MEDIA: For additional information about the grants, contact Katie Lee in the Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.