Dr. Qi Cui spent many nights in the earliest years of her life sleeping in a medical school office. Born and raised in China until the age of ten, Dr. Cui was the daughter of a physician educator at Peking Union Medical College in Beijing and spent weeknights sleeping at the College with her mother because it was too far to travel from their home during the week. Her mother’s career in science inspired Dr. Cui to pursue one of her own, achieving a M.D. PhD. followed by clinical training in ophthalmology that would allow her to explore research while also treating patients and performing surgery. Now, Dr. Cui calls a new University her home – the Scheie Eye Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Cui studies the mechanisms by which glaucomatous optic neuropathy, the leading cause of insidious vision-loss worldwide, develops. More specifically, Dr. Cui and her lab are investigating the relationship between iron toxicity and the development of glaucoma. Although iron plays crucial roles in cellular metabolism, an excessive amount of iron can lead to oxidative stress and cellular damage, exacerbating glaucoma. In partnership with the lab of Dr. Joshua Dunaief, Dr. Cui and her team are studying iron chelation, a therapy that removes excess iron from the body, as a potential protective measure against glaucoma.

Most recently, Dr. Cui has been studying the connection between a drug class commonly used for Type 2 Diabetes, GLP-1 receptor agonists, and glaucoma. In pre-clinical and retrospective studies with both animals and humans, Dr. Cui and her team demonstrated that these drugs reduce neuroinflammation to promote retinal and optic nerve protection. This drug class already has a positive safety profile due to its widespread use for Type 2 Diabetes and weight loss, which means that the treatment may be easily transitioned from a clinical setting to a patient care setting. In addition, while glaucoma is often associated with increased tension in the eye placing strain on the optic nerve, decreasing tension in the eye does not always stop glaucoma in its tracks. GLP-1 receptor agonists, however, do not rely on tension lowering to protect the retina and the optic nerve, and therefore augment the effects of existing glaucoma therapy.

Dr. Cui recognizes how vision loss resulting from glaucoma can seriously hinder patients’ quality-of-life and is dedicated to improving and finding new treatments for this disease. Her role as an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the Scheie Eye Institute allows her to perform cutting-edge research and translate the outcomes of her research to the clinical realm by treating patients and performing surgery. Just as Dr. Cui was inspired by her mother to explore medical research, the medical students who work in Dr. Cui’s lab will be equipped with the skills necessary to become the next generation of innovative physician-scientists.

Learn more about the work of Dr. Cui and the Scheie Eye Institute: https://www.med.upenn.edu/apps/faculty/index.php/g275/p8931117