Ken Nischal, MD, FRCOphth

Ken Nischal, MD, FRCOphth, Center for Rare Disease Therapy
Chief, Division of Pediatric Ophthalmology, 
Strabismus, and Adult Motility

As a young physician completing his training in ophthalmology, Dr. Ken Nischal had a career-altering experience. Working with a senior colleague, a highly experienced pediatric ophthalmologist, he saw a new patient: an infant who was blind because of a congenital condition that caused the corneas of both eyes to be opaque rather than clear.

“After we examined the child, my colleague said that, sadly, we could do nothing for him because any treatment we could offer would fail, and I accepted this,” Dr. Nischal recalls.

Fast forward just six weeks, when by coincidence—shortly after beginning a new position at a different hospital—he saw another child who at birth had had exactly the same condition in both corneas. But this child could see. His vision was limited, but thanks to corneal transplants in both eyes he could see well enough to find his way through an unfamiliar, crowded room.

Dr. Nischal was heartsick thinking about the infant whose parents he had told six weeks earlier that nothing could be done for the child’s blindness. “I promised myself I would make sure that every child I treated had a chance at vision,” he says.

After graduating from King's College Hospital Medical School, University of London, in 1988, Dr. Nischal trained in ophthalmology in Oxford and Birmingham in the United Kingdom and completed a fellowship in pediatric ophthalmology at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada.

In 1999, he accepted a position at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, one of the oldest and most respected children’s hospitals in the world. There he honed his expertise in developmental disorders of the eye and began the first program in the United Kingdom to treat children with rare conditions that cause opaque corneas. His program soon became a referral center for children not only from across the United Kingdom but also from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

In 2011, Dr. Nischal joined UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh as chief of the Division of Pediatric Ophthalmology, Strabismus, and Adult Motility. He also directs pediatric program development at the UPMC Eye Center and is a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He is one of the world’s foremost pediatric eye specialists and an author of more than 100 published research articles.

Dr. Nischal has pioneered the use of new surgical techniques, previously used only in adults, in children with corneal disorders. One of these techniques, deep anterior lamellar keratoplasty (DALK), involves removing the patient’s cornea except for a membrane just 1/100th of a millimeter thick and transplanting a healthy cornea on top of the membrane. This technique may be more resistant to eye trauma than a conventional corneal transplant, he says. For this reason, DALK may provide better results in children whose corneas are damaged by progressive neurometabolic diseases and who may also have an elevated risk for eye trauma.

At the Center for Rare Disease Therapy, physicians are dedicated to caring for children with rare disorders in a multidisciplinary fashion, says Dr. Nischal. This is important because a child with, for example, a rare developmental disorder of the eye will frequently also have a developmental disorder that affects another part of the body such as the brain, heart, or liver.

“Our patients benefit from the concerted efforts of a team of physicians,” he says. “I will treat the patient’s eye disorder, but she will also have a genetic evaluation and we will prepare an individualized surveillance plan for her. We will also work with her pediatrician to ensure that she gets the continuing care she needs to not only prolong her life but to maintain her quality of life.”