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Major philanthropic boost for CERA researchers

CERA research to develop powerful new vision tests to capture the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), identify genetic links in keratoconus and develop a simple eye test to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease have received a major philanthropic boost.

Research fellows Dr Zhichao Wu and Dr Srujana Sahebjada and CERA Deputy Director Associate Professor Peter van Wijngaarden received significant grants totalling almost $360,000 in the highly coveted Perpetual 2019 IMPACT Philanthropy Application Program.

The funding comes on top of major philanthropic support for Dr Wu’s research which also received close to $268,000 from the US-based BrightFocus Foundation, and the recent announcement of significant funding for Associate Professor van Wijngaarden’s research from the Alzheimer’s Drug Development Foundation and the National Foundation for Medical Research and Innovation.

CERA’s Head of Philanthropy and Fundraising Sarah Rainbird says CERA researchers are extremely grateful to receive funding to continue their research.

“The support of foundations such as Perpetual, BrightFocus and the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, combined with the generosity of our thousands of individual donors, makes our research possible,’’ she says.

“It’s a great testament to the important role philanthropy plays in supporting research and the positive impact for people experiencing vision loss, particularly those with age-related macular degeneration and keratoconus.”

Working towards a cure for AMD

AMD is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in developed countries, commonly occurring to the ageing population.

“AMD affects close to 200 million people worldwide, with approximately 1 in 7 Australians over the age of 50 presenting with some evidence of macular degeneration,” says CERA researcher Dr Zhichao Wu.

“There are treatments that currently exist for one form of AMD, commonly referred to as ‘wet’, but those with ‘dry’ or atrophic AMD currently face an inevitable future of progressive vision loss.

“There is good news on the horizon though, with over 50 clinical trials registered worldwide for dry AMD in 2017.”

Although there is currently a barrier to determine the efficiency of these newly developed therapies on halting the progression of AMD, Dr Wu has received two significant grants from Perpetual and BrightFocus which will be used to develop a new technique for determining the progression of AMD.

Based on the Macular Research Unit’s previous work that discovered the ability to perceive light in the macular is compromised in those with AMD, the new technique will involve measuring how well people can perceive light at precise locations inside the eye guided by retinal images.

This method will enable highly targeted testing of the earliest signs of the disease or comprehensive mapping of macular function in those with a slightly more established stage of the disease.

This will speed up the process of discovering potential therapies to prevent more people suffering the devastating effects of vision loss from dry AMD.

“Essentially, it’s like giving builders the tools they need to do what they do best,” Dr Wu explains.

Bringing new hope to people with keratoconus

Dr Sahebjada has great pride in the work she is in doing with CERA, particularly as her area of focus, keratoconus, affects a cohort who are generally in the prime of their life.

“Keratoconus is a progressive eye disease that affects the shape of the cornea, causing distorted vision,’’ she says.

“It predominately affects teens to those in their early adulthood, when these young people are supposed to be living some of their best years. We have recently seen a significant increase in the prevalence of keratoconus, with a five-fold increase of one in 375 people reported in 2017. I am endeavouring to change this. ”

Dr Sahebjada will use her Perpetual grant towards a study that will see her team use a new technique to examine the corneas of people with keratoconus to better understand the genetic cause of the condition. This study will provide crucial insights into keratoconus and hopefully reduce the need for corneal transplants.

As part of her study, Dr Sahebjada examines all genes associated with keratoconus in newly donated eye tissue and three layers of the cornea.

This work will allow the team to identify high-risk patients with the long-term aim of stopping its progression to more advanced stages of the disease.

“We are doing such important work at CERA and have achieved some significant advancements, but I’m determined to continue to strive towards improving the lives of those with keratoconus.”

Extra boost for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease

Funding from Perpetual is a further boost for Associate Professor Peter van Wijngaarden and his team whose research aims to develop of a simple eye test to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. The funding was secured with the invaluable support of the Philanthropy team at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital.

You can read more about that work in the story Major research funding for eye test to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.


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