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HomemistoryAccelerating Ophthalmic Research With Eolas Funding

Accelerating Ophthalmic Research With Eolas Funding

Philanthropist Brendan Birthistle with The University of Sydney's Narina Janian.

It’s the quest for eolas that drives Brendan Birthistle. Eolas meaning ‘knowledge’ in Irish.

This quest is now fast-tracking an ophthalmic research project within an internationally recognised biomedical accelerator in Sydney. Led by Professor Jonathan Crowston, the project aims to understand how exercise can protect the ageing retina against injury. In the future, it will inform the development of novel therapies to do so.

It’s not a glamorous area of research, but I think it’s an area that deserves a bit of support

Growing up in Ireland’s poorest county, where “no one ever paid taxes and they still don’t”, Mr Birthistle was fortunate to have a remarkable teacher who “worked us hard”.

“We’ve all done very well. At one stage there we had the President of the top university in the country, we had the Irish ambassador to the United States, and the top guy in the public service – all came from this little town. So, it’s amazing what knowledge can do.”

With this in mind, the 84-year-old, who lives in Sydney and made his fortune investing in micro-cap companies on the Australian Stock Exchange, is funding basic vision research led by Prof Crowston within The University of Sydney’s Save Sight Institute, and the emerging biomedical accelerator, a partnership between Sydney Local Health District and the University.

A Nation-Leading Precinct

Described as a “nation-leading biomedical precinct to fast track research and patient care in New South Wales”, the Sydney Biomedical Accelerator will develop into a 36,000m2 health, education, and research precinct, co-located at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the University’s Camperdown campuses, within the Tech Central precinct.1

The Accelerator is expected to position Sydney as a global leader in biomedical research, tackling some of our most complex health challenges, including cancer, neurodegenerative, and ocular diseases.

With a private-public investment of almost AU$500 million, the internationally recognised facility has been created to focus on ‘connectivity’ from the ground up. On completion, which is expected in 2026, it will connect The University of Sydney and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital with a physical bridge, encouraging collaboration between research and clinical medicine.

Well in advance of the building’s completion, research projects like Prof Crowston’s have already commenced.

Prof Crowston, an acknowledged global leader in glaucoma management, is researching the role of exercise to protect the retina against age-related vulnerability to injury.

In a paper published in Aging Cell,2 Professor Crowston foreshadowed the research he and his team of ophthalmic and neuro-researchers are undertaking with the financial support of Mr Birthistle.

“We know that retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) become increasingly vulnerable to injury with advanced ageing,” they wrote. “We recently showed that this vulnerability can be strongly modified in mice by exercise.”

Prof Crowston said there is also growing evidence from population studies that regular exercise appears to reduce the risk of glaucoma.

His team now aims to understand the characteristics and underlying mechanisms of retinal protection with exercise.

And it was this particular quest for knowledge that piqued Mr Birthistle’s interest.

Through the not-for-profit – the Eolas Foundation – he, his wife Rose, and colleague Doug Hawley OAM, are currently funding three projects: one short-term (the secondary education of young women in the Philippines); one medium-term (FORaMEAL; a Rotary initiative to help provide emergency relief meals in times of disaster) and one long-term project – Prof Crowston’s research.

No Strings Research

What inspired Mr Birthistle about the latter project was “the broader picture” because “everyone is getting older, and we’re all going to have eye problems, not only in the developing world but in the developed world”.

“It’s not a glamorous area of research, but I think it’s an area that deserves a bit of support.

“Facts and figures show that globally, at least 2.3 billion people have vision impairment, and this could have been prevented for at least one billion of them.

“It’s huge.

“In Australia, I’m told by The University of Sydney that one visit in 10 to a GP is for an eye-related problem. The costs equated to $16.6 billion in 2009 – ahead of coronary heart disease, diabetes, depression, and stroke – and yet the eyes don’t get the (research) attention. It seemed to be a neglected area that could be a fruitful area to give money to.”

Acknowledging that researchers like Prof Crowston can achieve major research grants from government organisations such as the National Health and Medical Research Council he said, “there are strings attached”.

“Although our donation is relatively small when compared to some of the grants available, we’re a lot more flexible.

“What Jonathan wants – what would be the best arrangement – is to have some government grants, but also to increase contributions from private charitable funds as well as investment from the enterprise sector that will help accelerate the speed at which treatments and diagnostic devices can be translated into the clinic.

“I hope that this donation will be one of the precursors to this arrangement.”

All going well, Mr Birthistle plans to continue supporting the project with both donations and expertise that may one day see Prof Crowston’s research translate to commercialisation.

“It seems Australians are creative, but the nation as a whole has not benefited from a lot of the research work done here – the benefits flow overseas because our scientists are OK but very poor at commercialising (their work).

“But I’m interested in commercialization because, at heart, I’m a capitalist. I don’t think the government should do everything for us; private individuals should do something, too.

“(Eolas Foundation partner) Doug Hawley…is commercially-minded and I know quite a bit about finance.

“So maybe we can help just a little bit in that way. But that’s pie in the sky at the moment.

Let’s see what happens.”


Mr Birthistle’s introduction to Prof Crowston came about by chance.

“I had to get my cataracts done in 2021 and (Sydney ophthalmologist) Dr Jay Yohendran did the job. He did a very good job; he runs a very efficient place, and I was very happy. So, I said… I’m interested in donating through the Eolas Foundation.

“I heard nothing for six or seven months then one day I got an email – he introduced me to Peter McCluskey (Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology and Eye Health at Faculty of Medicine and Health, The University of Sydney, and Director of the Save Sight Institute).

“He’s a good guy and he mentioned that they were setting up a medical bioaccelerator through The University of Sydney, and they would be starting up a big research project focussing on basic vision science at the Save Sight Institute.

“Eventually Peter introduced me to Prof Jonathan Crowston who was taking on the project.”

Narina Janian, Development Associate of the Advancement Portfolio in Medicine and Health at The University of Sydney, has been liaising with Mr Birthistle since he was first introduced to Prof McCluskey.

“Brendan (Birthistle) was presented with some interesting projects to fund, and he chose Prof Crowston’s. It’s a fantastic project, it had already started, and Jonathan (Crowston) wanted to accelerate it. Through this philanthropic funding he is now able to do that.

“Led by Prof Crowston, the goal is to develop and test treatments that reverse the negative effects of ageing and protect the optic nerve from eye pressure elevation, then to evaluate these treatments in human clinical trials within the next 10 years,” Ms Janian said.

“Brendan’s philanthropy, through his foundation, The Eolas Foundation, will accelerate vital projects such as these, and bring revolutionary new treatments to those that might otherwise lose their sight,” she said.

To find out more about opportunities to support research at the biomedical accelerator, contact Ms Janian: [email protected].

1. The University of Sydney, Historic $478m investment to change Australian healthcare forever, news release issued 29 August 2022, available at: sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2022/08/29/historic-478m-investment-to-changeaustralian-healthcare-forever.html [accessed 4 April 2023].
2. Chrysostomou V., Galic S., van Wijngaarden P., Trounce I.A., Steinberg G.R., and Crowston J.G., Exercise reverses age-related vulnerability of the retina to injury by preventing complement-mediated synapse elimination via a BDNF-dependent pathway. Aging Cell (2016) pp1-10. Doi: 10.1111/acel.12512.

Understanding Protection in the Ageing Retina

While retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) become increasingly vulnerable to injury with advancing age, Professor Jonathan Crowston et al. have shown that this vulnerability can be strongly modified in mice by exercise.2

In fact, they found that daily forced exercise, initiated 24 hours after an acute RGC-specific injury in middle-aged mice (12 months old), almost completely suppressed structural and functional losses observed after injury. In comparison, mice that didn’t exercise postinjury, lost 50% of inner retinal function and were more vulnerable to subsequent injury.

Now the trick is to understand the characteristics and underlying mechanisms of this retinal protection that comes with exercise.

To do this, Prof Crowston’s team initially investigated cellular changes associated with exercise-induced protection of ageing retinal cells and the role that local and peripheral trophic signalling played in mediating these effects.

Specifically, they focussed on two molecules: brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK).

They found that the protective effects of exercise were critically dependent on BDNF signalling, but independent of local and peripheral activation of AMPK.

Prof Crowston’s focus for research is now on “unravelling the mechanistic links between exercise-induced retinal protection and BDNF signalling”.

By identifying the “nature, source, and action of molecular mediators of exercise-induced protection” they hope to “inform the development of novel therapies to modify the response of ageing cells to injury and protect against age-related diseases such as glaucoma”.

“Australian eye researchers are creative and do high quality research. There is a healthy appetite for research entrepreneurship, and we benefit from a generous philanthropic community. Collectively, with appropriate support and funding, eye research institutes across Australia can further develop into leading international players in our fight to prevent unnecessary vision loss,” Prof Crowston concluded.