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Puliafito honored with international Vision Award in Portugal

Keck School of Medicine Dean Carmen A. Puliafito is among a team of scientists who received the António Champalimaud Vision Award during a ceremony held in Lisbon. (Photo/Ryan Ball)

Keck School of Medicine of USC Dean Carmen A. Puliafito received the 2012 António Champalimaud Vision Award today for the invention and development of optical coherence tomography (OCT) — imaging technology that has revolutionized the practice of ophthalmology by dramatically improving the ability of clinicians to diagnose and treat such blinding diseases as macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma.

Puliafito accepted the award in Lisbon, Portugal, during a ceremony held at the Champalimaud Foundation, one of the world’s largest international scientific institutions.

“The António Champalimaud Vision Award is a magnificent testament to Dr. Puliafito’s pioneering achievements in medical research,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “Dr. Puliafito is certainly an inspiration for our USC and global scientific communities. His work, and the work of his colleagues in vision science, have brought the promise of greater vision health to countless people around the world.”

Puliafito will share half of the award’s 1 million euro ($1.26 million) prize with research team members James Fujimoto, professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); David Huang, Weeks Professor of Ophthalmic Research at the Oregon Health & Science University and formerly of the Doheny Eye Institute at USC; Joel Schuman, Eye & Ear Foundation Professor and chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; and Eric Swanson, director of NinePoint Medical in Cambridge, Mass.

The other half of the prize will be shared by researchers led by David Williams, holder of the William G. Allyn Chair of Medical Optics and director of the Center for Visual Science at the University of Rochester. Williams’ team was honored for its development of adaptive optics (AO), an imaging technology that enables clinicians to examine retinal microstructures and improve vision by correcting minute aberrations of the eye.

“Both discoveries offer noninvasive methods to obtain high-resolution images of the retina that have drastically changed ophthalmic practice and hold great potential to advance both new research and clinical care,” according to the Champalimaud Foundation.

The foundation noted the “multidisciplinary development” of OCT and said both OCT and AO had “transformed eye care and medicine worldwide.”

“OCT is a case study in the power of collaboration between engineering and medicine in the development of new technologies that can dramatically improve patient care,” said Puliafito, holder of the May S. and John Hooval Dean’s Chair in Medicine and professor of Ophthalmology and Health Management at the Doheny Eye Institute. “I am deeply honored to receive the award and proud to have been at the forefront of such an important contribution to the field of vision medicine.”

Established by the Lisbon-based Champalimaud Foundation in 2006, the Vision Award is conferred in odd-numbered years for practical accomplishments in preventing blindness, particularly in developing countries, and in even-numbered years for outstanding scientific research in the field of vision science. Recipients are selected by a jury of distinguished scientists and prominent public figures from around the world.

Puliafito, Fujimoto, Huang, Schuman and Swanson were recognized for a body of work that began more than two decades ago when the researchers sought to harness the imaging capabilities of OCT and develop it into a practical clinical tool. OCT devices work similarly to an ultrasound but use infrared light waves to measure parts of the eye. The high resolution of OCT images allows clinicians to better see the layers and smallest details of the inside of the eye, and detect and treat eye diseases before they progress.

Working together initially at MIT, the research team published the invention of OCT in the journal Science in 1991. By the mid-1990s, the researchers developed the first OCT instrument for clinical ophthalmology. OCT has since come to be widely recognized as one of the most important diagnostic advances in the history of ophthalmology.

“I can think of no other clinical development in the last half century that has had as important and large an impact on the practice of ophthalmology as has this technology,” wrote Morton Goldberg, director emeritus of the Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in nominating papers for the award.

The Champalimaud jury considered the totality of the team’s work, including a dozen research accomplishments related to OCT’s development. The investigators were the first, for example, to describe the application of OCT in the management of blinding macular diseases, such as macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. They used OCT to develop a novel and widely accepted approach for the detection and management of glaucoma and its progression. Their contributions individually and collectively established an entirely new field of vision research.

Puliafito was recently reappointed to a second term as dean of the Keck School, a position he has held since 2007. From 2001 to 2007, he served as chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. Prior to his work at Bascom Palmer, he served as founding director of the New England Eye Center and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at Tufts University. Puliafito started his career at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and Harvard Medical School, where he was the founder of the Laser Research Laboratory and associate professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School until 1991.

Puliafito’s ophthalmic research has earned him, among other distinguished awards, the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award in the Visual Sciences, the J. Donald M. Gass Award of the Macula Society, the Innovators Award of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery and the Life Achievement Honor Award from the American Academy of Ophthalmology. For his work on OCT, he was awarded — along with Fujimoto and Swanson — the 2002 Rank Prize, the world’s most prestigious award in optoelectronics.

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