Alison Suhsun Liu, MD, PhD, assistant research professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, has been named the recipient of the 2023 Philip and Elaine Ellis New Investigator in Ophthalmology Research Award, a $40,000 grant to support her work studying dry eye disease.
“This award aims to bolster the research endeavors of emerging investigators displaying exceptional potential,” says Naresh Mandava, MD, professor of ophthalmology and chair of the CU Department of Ophthalmology. “Former department chair and prolific researcher Philip Ellis recognizes the vital role of financial support in enabling new research to leave a lasting mark in their respective domains. Dr. Liu serves as an exemplar of the qualities and expertise deserving of this prestigious award.”
Philip Ellis, MD, who served as department chair from 1960 to 1995, and his late wife Elaine established the fund in 2020 to support new ophthalmology investigators. The award grants $40,000 to a new researcher each year until 2025.
Studying dry eye and treatment access
With the funding, Liu plans to further study dry eye disease, a topic of focus for her since joining the department in 2021. The award will help support work that looks at awareness, especially regarding people who may be asymptomatic, and what variables impact access to treatment.
“Many people are suffering from severe dry eye symptoms, but they don’t have proper insurance coverage for prescription drugs or treatments, so they don’t end up with many choices,” Liu explains. “I want to look at the data we have in our clinic and see what kind of barriers exist for patients and what that means for prognosis and disease progression.”
Dry eye, which may affect up to 50 million Americans, is a result of poor or low tear production. Symptoms can range from redness, blurry vision, itchiness, and watery eyes, to inflammation, corneal ulcers, and, in some instances, vision loss.
“Dry eye disease can be very serious,” Liu explains. “Some people might only experience occasional symptoms, but don’t realize how severe it can be. This preliminary work based on our own clinical data may provide us with some ideas about the challenges dry eye patients face, such as accessing specialty care or obtaining insurance-covered prescriptions. These preliminary findings can also inform further research directions, too.”
Crucial work and mentoring
Liu’s two years in the department have garnered a large body of work, including publication of 15 systematic reviews and protocols – many having significant impact due to collaborative efforts with several clinicians at the Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center.
“Dr. Liu has made significant contributions the field of ophthalmology,” says Tianjing Li, MD, MHS, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology and director of the Cochrane Eyes and Vision US Project. “Her exceptional research on the ocular effects of cosmetics, a project conducted in collaboration with the Tear Film & Ocular Surface Society (TFOS), has garnered well-deserved attention, and she continues to unravel the prognosis of dry eye by applying cutting-edge artificial intelligence-based modeling techniques.”
Li also points to Liu’s commitment to mentorship as being a valuable resource to the department. Liu has mentored four medical students, a post-doctoral fellow, four junior faculty members, clinical fellows and residents on top of her own research.
For Liu, it’s a fulfilling endeavor.
“Getting through a systematic review can take months or years, but we try to spend a lot of time mentoring the first author, especially if it’s their first time,” she says. “It can be a long process, but it’s a rewarding process, for both the trainee and me.”