Meet a Specialist: Ula V. Jurkunas, MD
Ula V. Jurkunas, MD, was first drawn to Mass. Eye and Ear because of its commitment to integrating excellent ophthalmic care, clinical training and breakthrough research. “Mass. Eye and Ear’s spirit of innovation matched my own goal of advancing vision science,” she reflects. Committed to eradicating unnecessary blindness in this lifetime, Dr. Jurkunas is now a full-time clinician scientist with the Cornea and Refractive Surgery Service at Mass. Eye and Ear, Harvard Medical School, and Schepens Eye Research Institute. She primarily treats patients with cornea and external disease, endothelial dysfunction and corneal infection. Dr. Jurkunas is one of the highest volume refractive (LASIK, PRK) surgeons at Mass. Eye and Ear and specializes in corneal transplantation. Her research program at Schepens focuses on finding solutions for patients with Fuchs Endothelial Corneal Dystrophy and finding cures for corneal disorders with stem cell therapies.
“I have so many patients who have searched the internet, trying to find the right treatment for their disease,” Dr. Jurkunas explains. “Some travel across the U.S. just to ask about the latest research. And sometimes you can actually say, ‘Yesterday in the lab, we saw this correlation,’ or ‘we found this new bit of data. And I think it’s going to help you, maybe not now, but in the future.’ That’s why I’m here. And that’s why patients come to Mass. Eye and Ear.”
Of particular interest to Dr. Jurkunas is helping people with Fuchs Endothelial Corneal Dystrophy, which was first described in 1910 by German ophthalmologist, Ernest Fuchs. Fuchs Dystrophy is a progressive, degenerative disease of the corneal endothelium – and if left untreated, progresses to blindness. Currently, the only treatment for advanced Fuchs is corneal transplant, and Fuchs transplants account for one-third of all corneal transplants performed each year in the United States. While transplantation methods have improved, Dr. Jurkunas admits, “We don’t know what causes Fuchs. And we still have no pharmacologic therapies to treat the disease.”
As the principal investigator of a National Institutes of Health-funded research project, Dr. Jurkunas hopes that by studying the complex gene-environment interactions that give rise to Fuchs, she and others will be able to find better treatments and preventatives. “I want to learn why these corneal cells die. Specifically, I want to understand the roles that both genes and the environment play in Fuchs. If we can identify the factors that cause Fuchs, we may be able to alleviate them by developing medical treatments that prevent this form of corneal dystrophy.”
At the heart of Dr. Jurkunas’ work is the interplay between her clinical and research efforts: her patients influence the future direction of her research, and her research helps drive new initiatives in cutting-edge care. On the research front, she is especially grateful when patients with Fuchs donate cell and blood samples. These donations are kept in the biorepository of Mass. Eye and Ear’s new Ocular Genomics Institute and “provide invaluable genetic and disease progression data for our studies.” Through these studies, Dr. Jurkunas hopes to uncover knowledge that will lead to better treatments for her patients
Dr. Jurkunas is also passionate about finding new ways to restore vision to patients with limbal epithelial stem cell deficiency in the cornea. Currently, the treatment for patients affected in one eye consists of transplanting stem cells derived from the healthy eye. For patients with both eyes affected, Dr. Jurkunas and colleagues are testing an approach that involves harvesting and culturing stem cells from the lining of the mouth. “We are literally in the bench-to-bedside transition with this work,” reports Dr. Jurkunas. “It’s a wonderful example of how stem cells are really opening up innovative, new treatment approaches.”
Dr. Jurkunas lectures nationally and internationally on corneal disorders and surgical techniques. She generously shares her in-depth knowledge with junior faculty, teaches residents and fellows, and lends her expertise to colleagues and trainees in the laboratory. She is the recipient of multiple awards, including the prestigious Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology / Alcon Early Career Clinician-Scientist Research Award and Research to Prevent Blindness Clinician-Scientist Award.
Contact Dr. Jurkunas’ office at 617-573-6897 or 617-573-3234
View Dr. Jurkunas’ online bio for more information.