Honour for trailblazing eye researcher
CERA’s Deputy Director and Head of Macular Research Professor Robyn Guymer AM has been recognised in the 2021 Victorian Women’s Honour Roll as a trailblazer who has paved the way for women in ophthalmology and eye research.
Over 25 years Professor Guymer has risen through the ranks of a male-dominated profession to become a world leader.
Throughout her career she has achieved many ‘firsts’ in her pursuit to save the sight of people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
She was one of a handful of Australian women admitted to ophthalmology training in 1995 and later became Victoria’s first female medical retinal specialist at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital.
She was also the first Australian-born woman to become a full academic Professor of Ophthalmology.
Now her leadership in paving the way for other women to enter ophthalmology and vision research has been recognised in the 2021 Victorian Women’s Honour Roll.
Professor Guymer is currently ranked in the top two in the world for macular research.
Her team at CERA – made up of more than 20 predominantly female staff and students – has built an impressive international research program.
It a long way from the initial grant of $10,000 which established Professor Guymer’s research career and laid the early foundations for the establishment of her research team.
“I bought a portable retinal camera and spent several years travelling through regional Victoria collecting blood for DNA analysis and taking photos of the eyes of families with AMD,’’ she says.
That work was critical in developing a genetic database which informed much of Professor Guymer’s early research in the years that followed.
It was also the start of a long working partnership with research nurse Melinda Cain, who is still part of her team today.
“We drove around Victoria collecting blood samples from families. A lot of the time, Melinda drove because I was either pregnant or had a new baby at home and was too tired to drive.’’
Advances in AMD treatments
Early in her career, Professor Guymer cared for patients with age-related macular degeneration. At the time, little could be done to help them and frustrated by the lack of options, she embarked on a research career.
“I kept seeing patients in the clinic who I couldn’t help,’’ says Professor Guymer.
“I decided I could continue on the same path and see a finite people each week and deliver the same news to them over and over again – or I could do research and help find a treatment that could change the lives of an infinite number of people.’’
Today, thanks to an international research effort, there are now effective treatments which can prevent vision loss from the wet form of AMD.
Professor Guymer and her team are now focused on finding treatments to tackle the dry form of late disease, or earlier stages of disease – for which there are still no treatments or cures. They are also investigating ways to ensure the disease doesn’t progress to late vision-threatening stages.
This includes involvement in the clinical trial of an investigational gene therapy to treat a dry form of AMD, for which CERA was the first Australian study site. Professor Guymer also leads the National Health and Medical Research Council-funded Synergy High Risk AMD project, along with senior female colleagues Professors Melanie Bahlo, Erica Fletcher and Alice Pebay.
Mentor and role model
Associate Professor Lauren Ayton began her career in Professor Guymer’s group, and says she is an inspiration to many emerging women researchers.
“Robyn is a tremendous source of support and leadership for women in our field,’’ says Associate Professor Ayton.
“She actively advocates for her colleagues and provides opportunities for them to give keynote lectures, lead clinical trials and to receive awards.
“She is well known in our field as someone who will provide good advice and support, ensuring advancement of women. I am honoured to have her as a mentor and colleague.’’
CERA Managing Director Professor Keith Martin says Professor Guymer’s work has been instrumental in raising the profile of macular research around the world.
“Robyn is recognised as a global leader in vision research and helped save the sight of millions of people worldwide,’’ he says.
“She is an inspiration to all of us here at CERA and we are very proud of her achievements.’’
Professor Guymer says she is humbled be inducted into the Women’s Honour Roll along with so many other high calibre women.
She says it’s a privilege to work in research and make a difference for patients.
“I’m incredibly grateful for all of the support I’ve had over the years – from my colleagues in research and ophthalmology, funding bodies and generous donors,’’ she says.
“But clinical research could not happen without the patients and I am truly grateful that they put their trust in my team and take part in our research. ”