Categories: Research

University of Zurich Features Farhad Hafezi, MD, PhD – International Collaboration on Corneal Disease Imminent

The University of Zurich’s September newsletter covers USC Roski Eye Institute’s faculty member, Farhad Hafezi, MD, PhD. Hafezi, director of the Ocular Cell Biology and Biomechanics Lab at the University of Zurich, has recently inaugurated the USC Roski counterpart – the Ocular Cell Biology & Biomechanics laboratory – along with USC Roski’s J. Bradley Randleman, MD. Hafezi and Randleman hope to create synergies between these two laboratories to advance time-efficient research on corneal diseases.

Original Article written by: Marita Fuchs, editor-in-chief at UZH-News.
Publication: UZH-News, Zurich University, September 6, 2017.

The Fight Against Blindness

UZH Eye Specialist Farhad Hafezi has developed a method that protects people from blindness. In order to further his research on the cornea, he also recently led a second research team at the USC Roski Eye Institute of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.


A blind child in India: Eye infections are often caused by bacteria and fungi (Picture: Silvia Jansen)

As of August 2017, Hafezi helped inaugurate the Laboratory for Ocular Cell Biology & Corneal Biomechanics at USC Roski Eye Institute that focuses on corneal diseases. Looking towards the future, he believes that collaboration concerning ​​corneal biomechanics is an advantage for both the USC Roski and UZH laboratories.

Cross-linking When The Cornea is Deformed

Several years ago, Hafezi co-developed the “cross-linking method” which can prevent and halt the progression of keratoconus. It is one of the most common causes of severe visual impairment in adolescent children in Western countries. Keratoconus is twenty-times more likely to occur in children with Down syndrome than the rest of the population. The disease causes a thinning and deformation of the cornea of ​​the eye. This creates a bulge that can eventually tear and lead to blindness. With corneal cross-linking, the tear can be ameliorated.

The cross-linking procedure involves opening the sealing layer of the cornea and applying vitamin B2 drops. By irradiation with UVA light, the B2-vitamin riboflavin is activated and the collagen fibers of the cornea are reconnected. This results in the cross-linking of the cornea and a close-meshed network, which stabilizes the cornea. Within minutes, the cornea is solidified, and further tears are prevented. “The success rate is between 93 and 97 percent,” says Hafezi.

It is a relatively simple procedure that can save a great deal of pain if used as soon as tears are detected. “Because children and adolescents are particularly affected, there is also a demand for pediatricians who should send the young patients to the ophthalmologist in time,” says Hafezi. Altogether, about 5,000 people suffer from Keratoconus in Switzerland.


UZH and USC Roski eye specialist Farhad Hafezi is in collaboration with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles,
the largest pediatric hospital in the USA (Picture: Fabio Schönholzer)

Cross-linking in Eye Infections

In 2008, Hafezi discovered with other researchers that the cross-linking method works not only with keratoconus, but also in infections of the cornea. Corneal defects are the third most common cause of blindness worldwide. The WHO estimates that about one million people are affected each year on the Indian subcontinent alone. Worldwide, there are about 6 to 8 million people per year.

In subtropical countries, common eye infections are caused by injuries like blunt trauma to the eye from shrubbery and tree branches. Thereafter, rapid infection is possible because bacteria and fungi transfer to the eye. In contrast, common eye infections in Western countries are caused by contact lenses.

As a general rule, antibiotics help with infections. However, what can be done when antibiotic intolerance and antibiotic resistance are present? According to Hafezi, the cross-linking method is a good alternative to taking antibiotics. With the cross-linking method, all bacteria are killed – even those that are antibiotic-resistant. Moreover, the method simultaneously kills fungi, which is a central cause of infections particularly in warm countries.

Cooperation with the Largest Children’s Hospital in California

Farhad Hafezi has an interesting career: he is a researcher, clinician, founder of a private institute, and was a professor and clinic director at the ophthalmic clinic of the University Hospital of Geneva. He then returned to the private economy for his clinical activities and then to the UZH, where he heads a team at the Center for Applied Biotechnology and Molecular Medicine (CABMM).

“It is important for me to uncover the root cause of corneal diseases, and I am looking for the best research conditions,” says Hafezi. In addition to his team at UZH, his second research laboratory at the USC Roski Eye Institute – the Laboratory for Ocular Cell Biology & Corneal Biomechanics – has proven to provide an impressive research infrastructure. “The Americans have not had much experience with the cross-linking method, so they are very interested in it,” says Hafezi. The collaboration with the largest pediatric research institution in the United States, the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), is of great advantage in Los Angeles because researchers still do not know how long the cross-linking therapy works for very young patients and children. Through the CHLA, Hafezi and his team now have a large pool of patients and patients for Phase 3 of his clinical trial of cross-linking. You can look forward to the result.


You can view and download the original article in German here.

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