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Working together to beat age-related macular degeneration

Professor Alice Pébay, Dr Brendan Ansell, Dr Zhichao Wu, Professor Melanie Bahlo and Professor Robyn Guymer AM. Absent: Professor Erica Fletcher.

Researchers unite: (from left) Professor Alice Pébay, Dr Brendan Ansell, Dr Zhichao Wu, Professor Melanie Bahlo and Professor Robyn Guymer AM. Absent: Professor Erica Fletcher.

World-renowned macular researcher Professor Robyn Guymer AM is leading a new collaboration to tackle age-related macular degeneration.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) affects millions of elderly people worldwide. In Australia, one in seven people over 50 has the disease and it’s the leading cause of severe irreversible vision loss in this age group.

Despite advances in recent years, there are still many unanswered questions about the disease. There are currently no effective treatments for ‘dry’ AMD, or specific ways to slow progression of the disease.

It’s also unclear what puts some people with AMD at much greater risk of losing their sight.

This problem is too big for a single researcher or group to solve on their own, so now a team of Melbourne scientists has united to find the answer.

The team, which also includes scientists from the US and the UK, harnesses expertise in eye health, artificial intelligence, genetics, stem cell research and bioinformatics.

Together they will conduct the world’s most intensive study to determine what causes the highest risk form of AMD and develop new treatments to prevent vision loss.

World-first study

The research team is led by Professor Robyn Guymer AM. Chief Investigators include CERA colleague Dr Zhichao Wu, professors Erica Fletcher and Alice Pébay from the University of Melbourne and Professor Melanie Bahlo and Dr Brendan Ansell from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

Late in 2019, the team was awarded $5 million in the inaugural year of the National Medical Health and Research Council’s new Synergy Grants scheme, which is designed to encourage diverse groups to come together to address an important need.

Professor Guymer says the grant will support the team for five years to investigate the factors that put some people with AMD at much higher risk of losing their vision.

“If we can understand these factors, we can start to specifically tailor treatments to help this high-risk group,’’ Professor Guymer says.

“Currently, all cases of AMD are lumped together as one disease, but it is now clear there is at least one group of patients at increased risk of losing vision.

“With new imaging techniques, we can detect subtle differences between people with AMD and these differences provide important clues about why some are more at risk as their disease progresses. This has opened an exciting new area of research.

“Understanding what is different about the high-risk group, who can be determined by modern imaging techniques, and why this group is more likely to lose vision, is the key to saving sight.”


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