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CERA’s bright young things

The future looks bright for some of CERA’s up-and-coming research stars with two early career researchers recently receiving Ophthalmic Research Institute of Australia (ORIA) grants and three PhD students receiving National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Postgraduate Scholarships.

Dr Nicole Van Bergen, Postdoctoral Fellow in Glaucoma Unit
Dr Van Bergen and her collaborators recimage-tools (79)ently demonstrated that mitochondria, the energy producers in cells, are dysfunctional in patients with primary open-angle glaucoma. The ORIA New Investigator Grant will enable Dr Van Bergen to continue her work to further explore the molecular mechanisms behind the mitochondrial failure and look at how these defects predispose cells to stress. This may be relevant in the optic nerve during times of energy crisis or oxidative stress. By understanding mitochondrial failure in glaucoma, she hopes to identify pathways for therapeutic intervention.

Dr Van Bergen has also received a University of Melbourne Early Career Researcher Grant and an Ian Potter Foundation Travel Grant.

Dr Guei-Sheung (Rick) Liu, Research Fellow in Cytoprotection Pharmacology Unit
Dr Liu was awarded an ORIA grant to continue investigating the potential of Vasostatin – a drug that inhibits blood vessel growth – to treat common causes of vision loss.

The majority of diseases that cause catastrophic loss of vision, including age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy (DR) are caused by excess blood vessel development, known as neovascularisation. At present, treatment of neovascularisation requires ongoing repeated injections directly into the eye. An effective, non-invasive and long-lasting treatment is urgently needed to relieve the burden on both patients and the healthcare system.

Dr Liu’s work aims to provide pre-clinical evidence that subconjunctival delivery (under the surface of the eye) of Vasostatin using adeno-associated virus gene delivery is an effective therapeutic strategy. This work has the potential to revolutionise the management of leading causes of blindness.

Dr Liu was also recently awarded a University of Melbourne Early Career Grant and received a Young Investigators Award at the International Symposium of Materials on Regenerative Medicine Taiwan.

Duncan Crombie, PhD student in Neuroregeneration Unit
Duncan was awarded an NHMRC Postgraduate Scholarship to research a rare genetic disease called Friedreich’s Ataxia (FRDA). FRDA is a devastating disease of the nervous system characterised by a loss of balance, coordination and muscular control. It also has serious side effects on the heart and vision. Duncan is attempting to use a FRDA patient’s own stem cells to grow healthy heart and eye cells in a laboratory. These cells will be used to better understand the pathology of FRDA, to conduct basic research on the disease and to test new drugs, prior to conducting clinical trials.

Edith Holloway, PhD student in Health Services and Ocular Epidemiology Unit
Edith received an NHMRC Postgraduate Scholarship and Australian Rotary Health Ian Scott Mental Health Scholarship top-up to integrate an evidence-based treatment for depression into low vision rehabilitation services. Edith hopes this new treatment program will lead to ongoing improvements in participant’s quality of life and mental health. This is the first time in the world that a system to manage depression has been implemented into low vision services. If successful, this intervention could be suitable for application to other chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and oncology.

Melanie Larizza , PhD student in Health Services and Ocular Epidemiology Unit
Melanie received an NHMRC Postgraduate Scholarship to trial an innovative program to improve the management of DR. The individually tailored program will offer people with diabetes educational prompts and reminders (of their upcoming DR screening) over the telephone and/or using the short message service (SMS).

The trial will run in conjunction with the RetPath program, which offers free DR screening to people with diabetes when they visit a participating pathology centre for regular blood tests. People interested in participating in Melanie’s research will be randomly selected to either receive the educational prompts and reminders, in addition to the DR screening, or to receive the DR screening only.

This project will examine whether people who receive the educational prompts, in conjunction with DR screening, demonstrate improved knowledge of DR, better self-management, better diabetes-related quality of life, glycaemic control and attendance to routine screening for DR, compared to participants who are offered DR screening only.