From a young age, CERA Senior Research Fellow Dr Zhichao Wu wanted to improve public health.
Dr Zhichao Wu is determined to make a difference for people with ageing eye diseases.
Dr Wu was born in Singapore and grew up in Brisbane before choosing to study optometry when he didn’t score quite enough marks for medicine.
Medicine’s loss was optometry’s gain, as he quickly carved an incredible career in research to improve the early detection of and new treatment discovery for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and glaucoma.
His work, and that of his colleagues, has already led to improved detection methods and expedited the discovery of possible treatments for early eye diseases.
“I knew that I wanted to be in some kind of health area because my mum was a nurse,” Dr Wu says. “She instilled in us the importance of looking after people.”
Promising research vision rewarded
Dr Wu’s ground breaking work has been recognised with the prestigious American Academy of Optometry Irvin M and Beatrice Borish Award.
The winner is described as an outstanding early-career scientist or clinician-scientist to have shown exceptional promise conducting independent research related to etiology, prevention, detection, diagnosis, or management of clinical ocular disorders.
Dr Wu graduated in optometry at Queensland University of Technology in 2010 and completed a PhD in Ophthalmology at the University of Melbourne in 2014. It was during his early years in clinical practice at the Australian College of Optometry that he fully appreciated the impact of early eye diseases on one’s life.
“What really struck me was when I first saw a person that came in with bleeding in her eye because of AMD,” he recalls. “Surely in the 21st century we should be able to do something to prevent this from happening.”
Using technology to tackle AMD
Dr Wu wants to help the one in seven Australians aged over 50 with AMD, which has no cure and affects the macula – the central part of the retina at the back of the eye.
Among other things he is using new technology to assess deposits in the eye that cause AMD, allowing others to better observe the signs that someone is at risk of their condition worsening.
It is a team effort and Dr Wu is extremely grateful for the mentorship of CERA Deputy Director Professor Robyn Guymer AM, who has spent 20 years tackling AMD.
He has also worked with Professor Guymer and other collaborators to trial nanosecond laser technology , which hits cells in the eye with low-energy rays that are thought to trigger a healing response.
Most recently, a $5 million National Health and Medical Research Council grant from 2020-2025 will see Professor Guymer, Dr Wuand colleagues seek to uncover why some people with AMD are at much greater risk of losing their sight.
The international collaboration will investigate novel causes, genetic associations and potential intervention strategies using the latest technology and approaches.
Catching the ‘sneak thief of sight’
Apart from his work in AMD, Dr Wu is undertaking research to prevent irreversible vision loss from glaucoma, another leading eye disease that affects the optic nerve in the eye.
Half of those with glaucoma in Australia remain undiagnosed despite having an eye test in the last 12 months. For that reason, glaucoma has been dubbed the ‘sneak thief of sight’ as it is often detected too late.
Dr Wu previously worked with leading glaucoma researchers at the University of California, San Diego and Columbia University, which was made possible by an NHMRC fellowship.
He now hopes to exploit new technologies to enable earlier detection of glaucoma and find those on a pathway towards developing it. This will ensure that those who require preventative treatments can receive them early to preserve sight.
Dr Wu, who is also enjoying being a father to Amelia, 18 months, is honoured by his award but quick to point out that his work is possible due to the incredible support of his wife, Charissa, his research team colleagues and the generous funding received to date.
He hopes the recognition will encourage more people to get their eyes checked, as many people don’t realise that they have an eye disease until it’s too late.
“It’s a recognition I wasn’t quite expecting so I’m very thankful,” he says. “It’s a great privilege.”
Dr Wu is also grateful for the generous support of his research by the BrightFocus Foundation, Perpetual IMPACT Philanthropy Program and Macular Disease Foundation Australia.