The Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) is pleased to announce the appointment of two new Principal Investigators – Associate Professor Guei-Sheung (Rick) Liu and honorary researcher Dr Rod O’Day.
Associate Professor Liu will be leading CERA’s Genetic Engineering Research Unit, while Dr O’Day will head up a new Ocular Oncology Research Unit.
Exploring the next generation of gene therapy
After working for the last four-and-a-half years at the University of Tasmania, Associate Professor Liu – who completed his postdoc at CERA – plans to investigate new treatments for eye disease using advanced genetic technology.
“Since my work focuses on developing and refining genetic technologies for ocular gene therapy, I think it is a great opportunity to return to CERA and work with eye experts in this exciting field,” says Associate Professor Liu.
“With its unique clinical research environment, CERA provides the opportunity to translate the technology we have developed into clinical practice to benefit patients with vision impairment.
“My research group will focus on using gene editing technology to treat a range of inherited retinal diseases that are caused by a faulty gene. This new technology is actually able to correct the faulty gene and make it normal again, which could fundamentally cure the disease.”
According to Associate Professor Liu, this technology has the potential to treat not only inherited retinal disease, but a range of other eye conditions including diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and glaucoma.
His team is also looking to the next generation of gene therapy – ‘turnable gene therapy’ –where a therapeutic gene can be turned on and off. He says this can help to precisely tailor the treatment when needed by allowing them to manipulate gene expression. This strategy can then be used to develop better gene therapies for the long-term management of eye disease.
Leading ocular oncology research in Victoria
Dr O’Day is a consultant ophthalmologist at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital specialising in ocular oncology (eye cancers).
He’s recently returned from the UK after undertaking training to build his clinical skills treating patients with eye tumours. But it’s his interest in research that has led him to CERA.
“I think the research environment in Victoria – and particularly the one that CERA has – is world-class,” says Dr O’Day.
Like skin, the eye can also develop a freckle or mole called a choroidal nevus. These affect about six per cent of the Australian adult population and almost all of them are benign. However, they can sometimes grow into a malignant melanoma.
“The main aim I have with my research is to develop better techniques to estimate how malignant an eye tumour is,” says Dr O’Day.
“We will develop various techniques to help us better distinguish between a benign mole and a malignant melanoma.”
For patients with benign nevi, Dr O’Day wants to help optometrists to safely assess for the early warning signs of a malignant melanoma. For intermediate tumours, his research team is looking to novel imaging techniques and even artificial intelligence to help distinguish between a mole and a melanoma.
For more advanced disease, Dr O’Day emphasises the importance of building relationships with multidisciplinary cancer centres, as well as helping patients get involved in clinical trials. Techniques like liquid biopsy will also be investigated to see if they can help diagnose spread of disease earlier.
“I’m hoping there will be significant changes in the outcomes for our patients during my career. A number of new treatments are coming online for patients with metastatic uveal melanoma, where in the past there haven’t been any truly effective therapies.”
Through this work, Dr O’Day will also establish Victoria’s first Ocular Oncology Research Unit, based at CERA. This unit will have a multidisciplinary focus with strong connections to clinicians and researchers, particularly those at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Alfred Health.
“CERA gives us the platform needed to do this and provides the structural support for these new endeavours,” he says.
Building CERA’s research capabilities
CERA’s Managing Director Professor Keith Martin is excited to see these two research areas grow with Associate Professor Liu and Dr O’Day at the helm.
“We were very pleased to welcome Rick Liu back to CERA,” says Professor Martin.
“Rick’s work at the University of Tasmania has been very impressive, and he brings skills in gene therapy that will be useful to many other groups at CERA, including my own, as we work to build CERA’s capabilities in this field.
“We are also delighted to have Rod O’Day join us to set up the Ocular Oncology Research Unit at CERA. Oncology research is extremely strong in Melbourne, but research on cancers that affect the eye have not really been a major focus.”
“Rod is a highly experienced ocular oncologist with a passion for research, and we are excited to see how his work will help CERA deliver new understanding and treatments that make a real difference to people with cancers that impact the eye.”