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Benefactor stories

Phillip George Neal

(17.8.1950 – 8.3.2011)

Philip NealPhilip George Neal, a dairy farmer from South Gippsland, in Victoria, has made an extremely significant bequest to support stem cell research at the Centre for Eye Research Australia.

“I am overwhelmed by the generosity shown by Philip and wish I had the chance to thank him during his lifetime,” said CERA Managing Director Professor Jonathan Crowston.

Born in 1950 in Buffalo, Victoria, Philip was interested in animals and farming from a young age.

While working as a dairy farmer in December 1980, Philip suddenly found it very hard to read a telephone book. Philip had developed Optic Atrophy caused by a sudden degeneration of the optic nerve.

In 1983, despite his limited vision, he began a tertiary course in a Diploma of Applied Science in Agriculture as a mature age student. Despite his vision loss, Philip developed keen computer skills and began investing in the share market.

According to his cousin Bob Neal, Philip was a fiercely independent man and always made the most of his situation in life.

Before he died, Philip made the generous decision to bequeath the greater portion of his estate to benefit medical research in specific areas, namely heart research, cancer research and eye stem cell research.

Peter Sierakowski

Peter SierakowskiFour years ago Peter Sierakowski was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a genetic condition and the leading cause of irreversible vision loss in Australia.

“I always thought vision loss was a gradual process.  In my case, I woke up to discover that I could no longer see out of my right eye.  I was terrified” he said.

On the advice of a friend, Peter consulted Professor Robyn Guymer, head of the Macular Research Unit at the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA), and a practising ophthalmologist at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital.

He was invited to participate in a research trial at CERA to test a new treatment for AMD – the now widely used drug Lucentis. For Peter, the results of the trial were pleasing. “I’m happy to report that my vision remains stable.  For me, this is a fantastic result”.

Peter says he will always be indebted to the research staff at CERA.  It was this gratitude and his passion for research that led him to support the Eye Research Australia Foundation.  He is now a regular donor and intends to leave a bequest to the Foundation in his will.

“I’ve always been a proactive person so when I was diagnosed, I made it my mission to learn as much as I could about AMD and contribute in any way I could to AMD research,” he says.

“I have discussed my decision with my family and I have their full support.  They understand my plight with AMD and my motivation to make a difference in this area”.

Patient Stories

Austin O’Connor-Stubbs

Austin_OConnor-StubbsSeventeen-year old Austin first noticed something was wrong with his vision in mid-2012.

“I was setting up to take a mark at footy. When the ball was four metres away from me, it suddenly disappeared. Next thing I knew, it had flown past my shoulder,” he recalls.

“We went to the optometrist and he said straight away that I had a massive blind spot – it was a huge shock.”

Further testing revealed that Austin had Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON); a rare and untreatable form of blindness that affects mostly adolescent males.

Within a matter of weeks, the sports-mad teenager had completely lost his central vision, and was legally blind.

“I still have 15% of my vision but it’s only the periphery; I can’t see anything in the centre,” he explains. “It’s super frustrating, especially losing my hand-eye coordination.”

Despite his vision loss, Austin is still playing football and ran the half-marathon event at the 2013 Melbourne Marathon festival. Running unassisted, he raised much-needed funds for the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA), where he is volunteering in a research study.

“Donations are an essential funding source for medical research. In the case of LHON, philanthropic funding will allow us to increase our research effort in this rare but potentially blinding disease,” said Managing Director and fellow runner, Professor Jonathan Crowston.

“CERA is one of only a few groups worldwide conducting research into LHON. “With the support of patients like Austin, we can move closer to finding a cure for this and other devastating eye diseases,” said Professor Crowston.

CERA staff and student stories

Associate Professor Wilson Heriot

Wilson Heriot (2)Associate Professor Wilson Heriot has been a familiar face around the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital since the early 1980s. During his ophthalmology training, he was involved in research in diabetic epidemiology, however a US fellowship led him to develop an interest in medical retina research.

In the mid-90s, Wilson pioneered a new technique to treat subretinal haemorrhages; a technique which is still the most popular method worldwide to deal with bleeding complications in macular degeneration. Wilson pursues this interest in retinal research by working as an honorary investigator with CERA.

His current work focuses on developing new surgical techniques that improve speed and efficiency of retinal attachment surgery. “The pilot study is virtually complete, which is very exciting,” says Wilson.

“We’ve shown that it’s possible to seal retinal tears using laser in a different way that’s potentially much more efficient, leading to improved patient outcomes and decreased complications. If we can develop a better surgical technique for retinal detachment then it makes it simpler, faster and hopefully that will make an impact.”

Wilson hopes that CERA will keep building on this project and other similar work, in order to encourage trainees at the hospital to consider committing some of their time to research. “Until this started (and the Bionic Eye project a couple of years ago), nobody was doing any retinal laboratory research – in terms of experimental surgery,” he says. Wilson is also helping to develop surgical techniques for the Bionic Eye project.

When asked what inspires him to commit his time and energy to research, Wilsonhas a simple explanation: “I’m mad!” he says with a laugh, “Shouldn’t I be retiring and playing golf by now?” But like the rest of CERA’s passionate research team, it’s hard to believe that Wilson would have things any other way.