NOVEMBER 15, 2022 — Lorenzo Brancaleon, a professor in the UTSA Department of Physics and Astronomy, has received a two-year, $229,891 grant from the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Minority Leaders Research Collaborative Program (ML-RCP). The funding will support Brancaleon’s research into the molecular aging process and UV-induced damage of retinal melanin, a pigmentation that plays an important role in the overall health of the retina.
The Air Force Research Laboratory ML-RCP fosters partnerships with academia while engaging students from diverse backgrounds in research that supports the nation’s air, space and cyberspace technology needs.
The funding will be particularly impactful in providing hands-on learning opportunities to students at UTSA, a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) where 57% of students identify as Hispanic.
“The ML-RCP award is important to our group. It’s instrumental in further strengthening our collaboration with groups at the Air Force Research Laboratory,” Brancaleon said. “It also opens doors for minority and first-generation students to receive outstanding training that is crucial for their future careers and contribute to meaningful research. Both graduate and undergraduate students will leverage the research activity of this grant to enhance their scientific network and gain visibility through presentations at national conferences and publications in impactful scientific journals, thus creating the conditions for a future successful career in science.”
Brancaleon’s project, “Biophysical investigation of molecular markers of aging, photosensitization and laser-induced damage of pigmented melanosomes particles,” is a critical contribution toward solutions to maintain optimal vision, mainly in Air Force pilots.
Melanin, found in the eye within the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE), serves as a protective barrier against harmful UV rays by absorbing excess light. But the single layer of RPE cells can only guard the retina for so long.
“The melanin found in the eye and in the skin are different. The cells making melanin in the skin continue to produce melanin throughout our lives, but the retinal pigmented epithelium cells only produce melanin for a limited amount of time,” Brancaleon said. “In fact, most of it is made as an embryo and then production is done around the age of two.”
Accumulated damage of melanin can give rise to visual problems, including age macular degeneration and other visual impairments. The damage, noted Brancaleon, is permanent since the cells do not naturally regenerate. The UTSA researcher and two graduate students will closely look at the natural aging process and its impact on melanin pigmentation to better understand disease progression.
His research expertise studying the biophysical characterizations and applications of artificial photoreceptors—cells within the retina that respond to light— will establish a foundation to further explore the human visual system.
“We’re trying to understand the processes that contribute to the aging of melanin in the eye. We know they get damaged, but we want to find out how and whether there are different thresholds of damage,” said Brancaleon. “We want to understand the relationship between the natural aging process and damage sustained by interactions with light. If we understand that we can design interventions, whatever they may be.”
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