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National Eye Institute researcher receives Knights Templar Eye Foundation award for advancing albinism research

October 6, 2023

Ruchi Sharma, Ph.D., a staff scientist in the NEI Ocular and Stem Cell Translational Section, received a $90,000 award from the Knights Templar Eye Foundation (KTEF), a charity sponsored by the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar that supports early career vision scientists. 

Woman wearing a white lab coat and blue gloves in a lab setting with bottles and boxes behind her.

Ruchi Sharma, Ph.D., received a KTEF award for her work on albinism research.  Credit: National Eye Institute

Sharma’s award will support research of oculocutaneous albinism (OCA), a group of genetic disorders that affect production of the skin pigment melanin. OCA-related mutations reduce pigmentation in hair, skin, and eyes. They also can affect development of a part of the light-sensing retina called the fovea.

A small structure in the central part of the retina, the fovea enables sharp, clear vision. It’s essential for tasks such as reading and driving and anything else that requires focus on fine details.

“The retinal tissue within the fovea exhibits greater cell density, indicating its vital role in vision development,” said Sharma. In people with albinism, the fovea is underdeveloped or not well formed (hypoplasia), but the mechanism behind this malformation remains unclear.

To gain a deeper understanding of albinism’s effect on foveal tissue development, Sharma is generating foveal tissue from individuals with albinism. She will, then, compare these tissues with tissues generated from individuals without albinism.

Five people posing an a lab setting - four men and one woman. Three of the men are wearing Knights Templar regalia.

From left to right: John H. Austin, Bradley Andrukitis and Gary Kennedy (KTEF); Kapil Bharti and Ruchi Sharma (NEI). Credit: National Eye Institute

“Our ultimate goal is to find potential molecular targets – cells and tissues – that could be manipulated to foster healthy foveal development, offering a glimmer of hope for vision enhancement in young OCA patients,” says Dr. Sharma. “We are extremely happy that KTEF considered our lab’s work worthy of this award.”

John H. Austin, Right Eminent Grand Commander Maryland Knights Templar paid a visit to Sharma’s lab to see her research up close and learn how the award will benefit patients with albinism, especially children. “This is the fourth grant we have awarded to an NEI researcher in recent years, which says a lot about how dedicated these scientists are to finding cures to pediatric eye diseases,” said Austin. “We are very pleased to be able to see the good work grant recipients do with the hard-earned funds we raise.” Very Eminent Deputy Grand Commander of Maryland, Sir Knight Bradley Andrukitis and Eminent Grand Generalissimo and State Chairman of the KTEF, Sir Knight Gary Kennedy, accompanied Mr. Austin.  

Sharma’s NEI collaborators include Aman George, Ph.D. and Brian Brooks, M.D., Ph.D., Pediatric, Developmental, and Genetic Ophthalmology Section


Claudia Costabile or Dustin Hays