Setting Her Sights on Improving Vision
Many children are prescribed glasses, but for Arlene V. Drack, M.D. ’81 this set in motion a course that determined her future.
From the age of nine, Dr. Drack knew she wanted to be an eye doctor. Her research began as she explored the different paths she could take to improve a person’s vision.
Dr. Drack’s course ultimately led her to the University of Iowa, where she is an associate professor of ophthalmology and pediatrics at the Carver College of Medicine – regarded as one of the finest ophthalmology and visual sciences departments in the world.
She holds the Ronald Keech Professorship in Pediatric Genetic Eye Disease and directs the Pediatric Electroretinogram service. She runs a research laboratory as part of the Institute for Vision Research (IVR) that focuses on finding treatments for untreatable causes of blindness in children.
“At the IVR, we are on the forefront of identifying genes that cause blindness, which is the first step in finding treatments,” Dr. Drack says. “Because of this, we can offer patients cutting-edge advice that may give a child the chance to see.”
Dr. Drack spends her time researching, teaching and treating patients. She conducts gene therapy and clinical trials, as well as hands-on research where her students test what they’re learning. She also works to develop preventative measures for patients to utilize while waiting for treatment, and is currently investigating a way to help stop retina deterioration that could ultimately prevent blindness.
Finding treatments for previously untreatable conditions is something Dr. Drack thrives on. One example is her work with Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), an inherited disease that leads to blindness. Her team is working with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on a gene therapy trial to restore some sight to these patients, which she says is a “true revolution in ophthalmology.”
After earning two bachelor degrees – in biology and philosophy – at Scranton, Dr. Drack completed an ITT international fellowship in Oslo, Norway. She says her undergraduate research with Christine McDermott, Ph.D., and Joe Vinson, Ph.D., helped her obtain the fellowship. She then attended the Pennsylvania State University Medical School, conducted her residency at Georgetown University, and completed three fellowships, one at Johns Hopkins University and two at the University of Iowa. She began her career on the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta and then served as the chief of ophthalmology at the Children’s Hospital in Denver.
Dr. Drack, an O’Hara Award recipient in 2011, gives credit to where her educational journey began: “The University of Scranton provided so many opportunities. Without the Presidential Scholarship I received, I wouldn’t have been able to attend the University.”
The University’s Jesuit ideals inspired her to help others. Some of her most profound experiences, including working for three months in India at a leprosy hospital, she owes to Scranton. Dr. Drack credits the mentorship of Rev. Edward Gannon, S.J., and says that the education she received is what set her on the path to where she is today.
Dr. Drack has a nine-year-old daughter with her husband, Bill, and a 21-year-old stepdaughter, who joined her in the lab for two summers and is now interested in biomedical research.
“I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had,” she concludes. “I’ve witnessed first-hand that one person really can make an impact. I love that through my research, I can make my own.”