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A tall poppy returns to CERA

image-tools (93)There is no doubt that Dr Alex Hewitt is a high-achiever. A talented, up-and-coming clinician-researcher, Dr Hewitt’s impressive clinical work, academic achievements and community service were recognised in 2012 with a Western Australia Young Tall Poppy Award during his secondment to the Lions Eye Institute in Perth.

Now back in Melbourne, Dr Hewitt has taken the reins as Head of CERA’s Clinical Genetics unit with the aim to answer two very simple questions that he hears every day from his patients; “Why do I have this disease and what can I do about it?”

“My research interests are the molecular mechanisms of blinding eye diseases,” says Dr Hewitt. “Our group is aiming to apply the cutting edge, leading biotechnology and bioinformatics solutions to better understand and treat these diseases. This is central to our role as clinical researchers; bridging this gap between science and patient care.”

The Clinical Genetics unit conducts a range of studies based on genetics, transcriptomics (gene expression) and proteomics (proteins produced by these genes). “One of the key aspects of our research is that we’re working across a range of many different diseases, across many different technological platforms, so the key factor that underpins this is having strong collaborations,” says Dr Hewitt.

His list of collaborators includes researchers in Nepal, the US and Europe, as well as many local researchers here in Australia, including Associate Professor Jamie Craig from Flinders University and CERA honorary researcher Professor David Mackey, Managing Director of the Lions Eye Institute.

Prior to his time in WA, Dr Hewitt completed his ophthalmology training at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, where he developed an interest in research and began working as an honorary CERA researcher. “I think as a clinician, I can have a much greater impact for a greater number of people by understanding the disease and developing a new treatments than I can by operating for a single patient,” he says.

“Obviously there are other ways to have large scale improvements to patient’s quality of life, for example, making current treatments more affordable,” says Dr Hewitt, “But at the moment, I’m most interested in the new biological technologies that are being developed, that have the potential to answer almost any question in biology, if there are enough resources available.”

In the near future, this will mean better treatments for devastating conditions such as glaucoma and other neurodegenerative diseases. “There has been a lot of work in this area and I think there will be dramatic improvements in treatment options for leading causes of blindness over the next 10 years,” says Dr Hewitt. He also expects big developments in our understanding of what causes inherited genetic diseases, allowing us to explore new ways of halting the disease progression.