His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd) has presented Macular Disease Foundation Australia’s 2017 research grants, totalling AU$600,000, to three Australian researchers at a morning tea at Admiralty House, Kirribilli. Since 2011, the Foundation has awarded over 3.6 million in grants to support 15 Australian researchers across 18 projects.
Addressing members of the Foundation’s board, its corporate and community supporters, volunteers and people with macular disease, Sir Peter Cosgrove said, “Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness and severe vision loss in Australia, and it is Macular Disease Foundation Australia that is leading the fight against this disease by raising awareness and reducing risk, through prevention, support and education, and by advocating on behalf of those suffering from a macular disease.
“You fight against macular degeneration through research – because it is research that holds the key to understanding why people lose sight from macular degeneration. It is research that develops new treatments and through research, ultimately, we will be the saving of the sight of thousands of Australians.
“Research is our hope, our future, the way forward for a cure, but of course, we know research doesn’t just happen. World-class ground-breaking research is complex and costly and that’s why the Foundation’s Research Grants program is really important,” said Sir Peter Cosgrove.
The Governor General acknowledged the leadership of the Foundation’s chair Robert Kaye SC, and Chief Executive Officer Julie Heraghty, as well as the board, corporate supporters, donors, volunteers and those with a macular disease. “It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a community to beat a disease,” he said.
Ms. Heraghty presented the 2017 Research Grants to Associate Professor Alice Pébay, Centre for Eye Research Australia, Melbourne, Professor Erica Fletcher, The University of Melbourne and Dr. Fred Chen, Lions Eye Institute, The University of Western Australia.
Associate Professor Alice Pébay, Centre for Eye Research Australia, Melbourne
Modelling geographic atrophy using human pluripotent stem cells.
This project aims to better understand the mechanisms causing dry AMD by developing a laboratory model using human retinal cells produced from induced pluripotent stem cells from 150 people with dry AMD, and comparing these to retinal cells produced from people without dry AMD. The cells from AMD patients will include a wide range of the genetic variations that have been linked to an increased risk of disease. It is hoped that this approach will help us to better understand the processes that cause disease and identify relevant new targets for treatments in a way that has not been possible with the inadequate animal models used to date.
Associate Professor Alice Pébay received a research grant for $300,000 over two years.
Asked by Ms. Heraghty about her greatest wish as a researcher, Associate Professor Pébay said, “we all have friends, we all have family members, we all know someone who is affected by vision loss a and blindness and we all know how devastating that can be. My research is really aiming to get a treatment to help people live better and hopefully to stop vision loss from any conditions.”
Professor Erica Fletcher, The University of Melbourne
Targeting monocyte phagocytosis to reduce progression of age-related macular degeneration.
This project builds on Prof. Fletcher’s previous research funded by the Foundation, which showed that the failure of certain immune cells (monocytes) to remove the accumulation of waste products (drusen) under the retina in a process called phagocytosis may be a major contributor to the development of early and dry AMD.
Professor Fletcher will firstly examine whether measuring the phagocytic function of these cells can be used as a diagnostic blood test to identify people at greatest risk of disease progression. Secondly, she will test a number of new proteins to see if they can improve the ability of monocytes to remove the waste products, as potential treatments to slow or stop disease development. Professor Fletcher received a grant of $180,000 over two years.
Professior Fletcher said her greatest wish as a researcher was , “to have a world without vision loss from AMD or in deed, any disease”.
Dr. Fred Chen, Lions Eye Institute, The University of Western Australia
Stargardt macular degeneration: finding new genetic mutations and preparing patients for clinical trials.
Stargardt’s disease is a form of macular degeneration that occurs in children and young adults, which is caused by many different mutations of a specific gene. Although less common than AMD, it has a profound, lifetime impact on the person and their family. There is a need to improve the speed and accuracy of genetic diagnosis within Australia and to identify a group of people who will be suitable to participate in clinical trials of new treatments that are in late stage development.
This grant will provide initial funding to investigate the varied presentation and natural history of Stargardt’s in Australia, to help early diagnosis, as well as develop techniques and infrastructure to discover mechanisms of new mutations in the Stargardt’s gene. Dr. Chen was awarded a grant of $120,000 over two years.
Ms. Heraghty said Dr. Chen had told her that his greatest wish as a research was to one day be able to tell all his patients, regardless of the type of macular disease they have, that there is a treatment to prevent them from losing their vision or even restore their sight. “Fred, your wish is our hope,” said Ms. Heraghty.
The Grants Program
The Foundation’s grants and fellowships make significant contributions to Australian medical, psychosocial and nutritional research into macular degeneration. They are awarded following rigorous evaluation, based largely on the National Health and process, along with international peer review, to ensure that the successful highest standards.