May 06, 2001
CARL ROTENBERG, Times Herald Staff
WHITPAIN -- The National Multiple Sclerosis Society has put its faith in a clinical researcher to determine how to measure the visual problems of multiple sclerosis patients.
Dr. Laura J. Balcer, a Whitpain resident for the past 4½ years, has received an $830,122 grant over five years to conduct five different vision tests on more than 400 multiple sclerosis patients.
The five-year study, called "Vision, MRI lesion burden, Quality of Life in MS," was announced in June 2000. The actual testing at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia began in February, said Balcer.
"Many patients with MS feel their vision is not right despite the fact they may have 20-20 vision," said Balcer. "We likely have not developed sensitive enough vision tests to capture the abnormalities in vision with MS."
The study will include the 400 patients with MS and 200 age- and gender-matched "control" participants to compare the results.
The vision tests are very similar to those used by ophthalmologists and neurologists. They will include visual acuity (reading black letters on a white background), contrast sensitivity and contrast letter acuity (reading letters of different shades of gray on a white background), color vision (putting colored caps in order by hue) and visual field (peripheral vision testing by a computer).
"We think a vision chart with gray letters on a white background will be better to identify visual problems in MS patients," Balcer said.
"We have enrolled 21 patients with MS and 22 Ďcontrolí participants so far. The goal is to attract another 75 patients in 2001 and an average of 100 patients each year."
The grant pays for Balcer and her research assistant, Ligia Schiavi, to conduct the research, along with equipment, MRI scans and MRI personnel. It will also provide reimbursement for patient parking at the hospital.
Multiple sclerosis affects 350,000 people in the U.S. It is the most common demyelinating disorder of the central nervous system. Itís a leading cause of vision and neurologic problems among young and middle-aged adults.
Balcer spends most of her time doing clinical research, including the MS study and other clinical research projects in neuro-opthalmology. She spends one day each week treating patients in the neuro-ophthalmology clinic at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
The researcher and clinician works about 60 to 70 hours a week.
"But donít tell my mom," she said with a laugh. "To remain competitive for grant funding and to complete the grant studies requires many hours."
Balcer grew up Lutherville, Md., and graduated from Dulaney High School in Timonium, Md., in 1983.
After earning her medical degree at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1991, she completed an internship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in 1992.
A neurology residency at the Penn followed from 1992 to 1995. She did a clinical fellowship in neuro-ophthalmology in 1996.
Balcer also earned a masterís of science degree in clinical epidemiology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2000.
Balcerís husband, David Lynch, has been a neurologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Childrenís Hospital for the past 10 years.
©The Times Herald 2001