Macular Disease Foundation Australia awards $1 million to eight exciting research projects

MDFA

Macular Disease Foundation Australia (MDFA) has awarded more than $1 million in research funding to  eight promising projects, in a ceremony marking 10 years of significant advances in the search for a cure to  Australia’s leading cause of blindness.  

The grants were presented to eight cutting-edge Australian researchers who are working to reduce the  incidence and impact of macular disease by His Excellency the Honourable David Hurley, Governor-General  of Australia, at Admiralty House in Sydney.  

This funding will support projects examining gene therapies, using novel imaging techniques, improving  patients’ quality of life, and creating a macula in retinal organoids that could potentially help treat age related macular degeneration (AMD) and other macular conditions.  

Celebrating MDFA’s 20th anniversary and a decade of the MDFA Research Grants Program, this $1m  investment brings MDFA’s total commitment to $5.1m since 2011. MDFA is now Australia’s largest source  of research funding in the field of macular disease outside of government.  

MDFA awarded six research grants worth a total of $935,000. An additional $90,000 will fund two new  early-career researchers undertaking innovative ‘blue sky’ research into macular disease and is only  possible as a result of a generous bequest made in memory of the late Faye Grant.  

MDFA CEO Dee Hopkins says MDFA did not expect to finance eight projects when applications opened last  October, but this round of funding is testament to the depth of talent among young Australian researchers.  

“This announcement underlines the sheer volume of gifted researchers – particularly early-career  researchers – that Australia is producing,” Ms Hopkins says. MDFA is proud to play its part in supporting  and funding these rising stars.  

“All eight of these projects show great promise, but I’m particularly excited by the applications from  younger researchers that aim to shift existing paradigms in macular disease research.  

“MDFA funding is crucial and often snowballs into much larger investments from the NHMRC and other  funding bodies, not to mention significant advancements in treatment and better outcomes for the macular  disease community.”  

MDFA awarded grants to researchers investigating potential gene therapies for AMD as well as use of innovative imaging techniques that could help improve our understanding on the causes of AMD and  develop novel treatment strategies.  

One project will use human eye cells to create disease models in the laboratory and explore the possibility  of blocking the actions of molecules known as cytokines to treat macular oedema. 

MDFA Research Grants are also funding a pilot diet, exercise and social interaction program designed to  boost the mental and physical wellbeing of people living with AMD, plus a study to measure AMD patients’  quality of life – including the financial burden of the disease. 

The Grant Family Fund is supporting projects that create a macula-containing organoid that will then be  used as perfect models for macular degeneration, as well as manipulating genes to provide novel insights  into the pathogenesis of AMD and potentially contribute to the development of new treatments for AMD.  

Applications were subject to a rigorous assessment process based on NHMRC criteria to ensure that  successful applicants meet the highest standards.

MDFA Research Grants 

Researcher: A/Prof Chi Luu  

Institution: Centre for Eye Research Australia  

Project title: Relationships between choriocapillaris endothelial function, photoreceptor health and AMD  phenotypes.  

This project will use an innovative imaging technique to improve our understanding of the causes of age related macular degeneration (AMD) and help develop new treatment strategies.

Researcher: Prof Justine Smith  

Institution: Flinders University  

Project title: Targeting inflammatory cytokines in macular oedema.  

This project will use human eye cells to create disease models in the laboratory. It will then use these to  explore the possibility of treating macular oedema by blocking the actions of molecules called  ‘cytokines’. Macular oedema is responsible for sight loss in diverse macular conditions – from diabetic  eye disease to retinitis pigmentosa. 

Researcher: A/Prof Matthew Simunovic  

Institution: Save Sight Institute, University of Sydney 

Project title: Optogenetic restoration of vision in macular degeneration with high-sensitivity Type I and  Type II opsins.  

This project aims to eventually restore sight lost to macular degeneration using a type of gene therapy  called ‘optogenetics’. Optogenetic gene therapy makes the ordinarily light-insensitive nerve cells that  survive in advanced macular degeneration sensitive to light: it can therefore be considered a biological  equivalent of the bionic retina.

Researcher: Ms Diana Tang  

Institution: Macquarie University  

Project title: The development, implementation and evaluation of an online Movement, Interaction and  Nutrition for Greater Lifestyles in the Elderly (MINGLE) program for people with age-related macular  degeneration.  

This study aims to improve the mental and physical health of people living with age-related macular  degeneration through the MINGLE program. The program is led by an accredited practising dietician and  a physical activity researcher.

Researcher: Dr Sheela Kumaran 

Institution: University of NSW  

Project title: Measuring the breadth and the depth of the quality-of-life impacts caused by age-related  macular degeneration.  

This project aims to improve the way the impact of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) on quality  of life is measured. This will help assess the effectiveness of various interventions. It will also help our  understanding of the economic impacts of AMD. 

Researcher: Dr Yvette Wooff  

Institution: Australian National University  

Project title: Treat yourself! The use of therapeutically-loaded extracellular vesicles as a novel gene  therapy for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration.  

This project will investigate the possibility of restoring communication between cells by therapeutically  supplementing the natural molecular message of retinal health as a therapy. It is hoped that doing so will  help maintain retinal health and slow the progression of retinal degeneration.

Grant Family Fund 

Researcher: Dr Ting Zhang  

Institution: Save Sight Institute, University of Sydney 

Project title: Activating endogenous phosphoglycerate dehydrogenase (PHGDH) to treat age-related  macular degeneration with the help of a Müller cell-specific lipid nanocarrier.  

The project will look at age-related macular degeneration at a cellular level. It will consider the role of an  important enzyme in combating oxidative and mitochondrial stress to particular retinal cells.

Researcher: Dr Anai Gonzalez Cordero  

Institution: University of Sydney  

Project title: Creating a macula in retinal organoids.  

Macular tissue can be used as a source of cells for replacement therapies and used to test the efficacy of  potential therapies, promising to ameliorate sight loss of millions of people.

About Macular Disease Foundation Australia (MDFA)  

MDFA is the peak national body representing the voice of the macular disease community. It is committed  to reducing the incidence and impact of macular disease, the leading cause of blindness and severe vision  loss in Australia. It provides a range of information and support services via its National Helpline 1800 111  709 and website www.mdfoundation.com.au.  

About MDFA’s Research Grants Program  

MDFA’s Research Grants Program was launched in 2011. Over the past decade, MDFA has invested $5.1  million in world-class Australian researchers – the largest non-government source of research funds for  macular disease in Australia. Including this 2021 round of funding, MDFA Research Grants have supported  29 projects by 25 different researchers.  

In 2021, MDFA also launched the Grant Family Fund, which provides grants to early-career researchers for  innovative and creative ‘blue sky’ projects in the field of macular disease. The Grant Family Fund is a  biennial grant opportunity made possible by a generous bequest from the estate of the late Faye Grant.  

About macular disease  

Macular disease covers a range of painless conditions that affect the central retina (the macula) at the back  of the eye. The most common are age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and diabetic retinopathy (DR),  including diabetic macular oedema (DMO). AMD accounts for 50 per cent of blindness in Australia. One in  seven (approximately 1.4 million) Australians over the age of 50 have some evidence of AMD.  

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