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Research project keeps its eyes fixed on fighting blindness

SFI Partner Profile: The EYE-D project will look at the underlying causes of degenerative retinal diseases

A research project aimed at identifying the cause of some of the most common forms of blindness has received €3.2 million in funding under the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Strategic Partnership Programme.

Led by Prof Sarah Doyle of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience (TCIN) and Prof Matthew Campbell of the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at TCD, the EYE-D research project into degenerative retinal diseases involves separate collaborations with four separate partners: Roche, Disarm/Eli Lilly, private ophthalmology clinic Progressive Vision Research, and the charity Fighting Blindness Ireland. Together, these groups will provide €1.6 million in funding to advance various research programmes focused on identifying the underlying causes of degenerative eye diseases.

Degenerative retinal diseases can result in severe loss of vision and are estimated to affect 224,000 people in Ireland, and 40 million people worldwide.

“We are excited about the potential developments that will emerge from this funding,” says Prof Campbell. “The budget of €3.2 million will allow us to make a big impact on the international stage of vision research. In addition, our research endeavours put us in a perfect position to identify the cause of some of the most common forms of blindness”.


The funding will build on earlier progress, according to Prof Doyle. “This funding will allow us to build on the major successes our group has had in understanding degenerative eye diseases. Added to this, we can now recruit the most talented group of scientists internationally and place Ireland at the forefront of vision research.”

Campbell explains the importance of the SFI Strategic Partnership as a source of funding for academic researchers. “It allows academics in Ireland to get funding from the private sector and charities and get matching funding from the State,” he says. “It’s a really nice funding programme for basic research. We got a consortium together of companies and a charity partner who all wanted to work with us and committed funding of between €250,000 and €750,000 each. We put in an application to SFI and, following rigorous peer review, we were approved for matching funding.”

He describes the project as a slow builder. “We first thought about this three years ago. We had to convince people to get involved. There can be differences in approach to intellectual property [IP] when you are working with private sector partners. A company might want to say that they own the IP. That is not possible with a project like this. You have to explain that the Government is funding the research with taxpayers’ money. Companies can get an exclusive option on IP for a period of time, of course.”

The project is investigating novel disease targets. “We are looking for what causes diseases like retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration [AMD] and glaucoma,” says Campbell. “We are on a fishing expedition to identify targets which can be treated with new drugs.”

Age-related macular degeneration is a progressive condition which can result in the patient losing their sight over time. “We were researching AMD and saw that the circadian rhythms of the cells involved were slowing down with age. As a scientist, everything I do every day is think of new ideas. We came up with the hypothesis that cells in the retina are leaking and we wanted to see if that is a cause of AMD.”

He explains that the circadian rhythm sees blood vessels tightening up in the morning and loosening at night but that if they remain loose, they can leak all the time. This can lead to a build-up of a substance known as drusen in the back of the eye.

“We think this could be a key driver of AMD,” he notes. “If we can identify the proteins responsible for that, it will help to identify a therapy.”

Research results so far are encouraging, and the team is now investigating the drivers behind this phenomenon. The team is also collaborating with a research group in Iowa where they have access to the eyes of organ donors. “We are able to look at the retinas of patients who had AMD,” says Campbell. “That is very helpful.”

Other targets include glaucoma and inherited eye diseases. “If a patient has a particular faulty gene, they will go on to develop retinitis pigmentosa,” Campbell points out. “Fighting Blindness was founded to address that disease. There are now some approved gene therapies for these types of blindness. That’s really exciting. Researchers are ideas people. We generally don’t bring things to clinical trials. That’s for the pharma companies. By sticking to what we are good at and working with larger companies we can keep our eyes on the prize and eventually see therapies getting into the clinic. The SFI Strategic Partnership Programme supports those collaborations.”