New Melbourne research project launches major assault on age-related macular degeneration

Melbourne researchers will lead the world’s most intensive investigation to uncover why some people with age-related macular degeneration are at much greater risk of losing their sight.

The world-first study, led by Professor Robyn Guymer from the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) and the University of Melbourne, is the largest ever assembled to determine the causes of a high-risk form of AMD and develop new treatments to prevent vision loss.

The team, which also includes researchers from the University of Melbourne, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and universities in the US and UK, will bring together experts in eye health, artificial intelligence, genetics, stem cell research and bioinformatics to tackle the disease, which affects millions of elderly people worldwide.

The team will work with optometrists to recruit hundreds of Australians with normal vision and AMD and utilise data from tens of thousands of eye scans internationally for the study.

Age-related macular degeneration affects one in seven people over 50 and is the leading cause of legal blindness and severe vision loss in Australia.

The study has received a $5 million from the National Medical Health and Research Council’s Synergy grants program, which support teams of researchers to investigate problems that are too big to be solved by an individual researcher or a single group.

The new study aims to:

  • Investigate the specific genetic and other factors that put one group of people with AMD, amongst those already at high risk, at much greater risk of losing their vision
  • Understand how different genetic factors influence the normal functioning of the eye
  • Develop new treatments to tackle this very high-risk AMD group.

“Currently, all cases of AMD are lumped together as one disease but it is now clear there is at least one group of patients at increased risk of losing vision” she said.

“Our recent LEAD study, which treated patients with early stages of AMD to slow progression, highlighted that the same treatment will not work for everyone.

“Understanding what is different about the high-risk group, who can be determined by modern imaging techniques, and why this group is more likely to lose vision, is the key to saving sight,” said Professor Guymer.

“In the past, AMD was diagnosed by simply looking in the back of the eye, but with new imaging techniques we can see subtle differences between people and this provides important clues about why some are more at risk as their diseases progresses. This has opened up an exciting new area of research.”

Other Chief Investigators on the project include Professor Erica Fletcher and Professor Alice Pébay from the University of Melbourne; Professor Melanie Bahlo and Dr Brendan Ansell from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, and Dr Zhichao Wu from the Centre for Eye Research Australia.

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