Emerging Researcher Award 2022 Winners Announcement

May 5, 2022

A key priority for Fighting Blindness is to support the next generation of vision researchers. We recognise that training, networking and developing collaborations are key to the career development of early-stage career researchers and clinicians.

Last November we opened our call for the Fighting Blindness Emerging Researcher Award. This was with a view to supporting promising early-stage researchers and clinicians in exploring or developing novel, ambitious ideas, new research directions, or finishing projects with the goal of establishing their own record of independent research.

Following a competitive application process which involved a presentation and interview, we are delighted to announce that the following applicants are recipients of the Emerging Research Award funding.

1st place: Dr Joanne O’Dwyer, NUI Galway

‘A novel formulation for removal of macular oedema.’

Award amount: €10,000

This project proposes a new research direction for the treatment of a type of diabetic eye disease called diabetic macular oedema (DME). Diabetes affects 460 million people worldwide. One in every 15 people with diabetes has diabetic eye disease – diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in working-age adults worldwide. DME is one form of diabetic retinopathy. In DME, extra blood vessels form in the retina at the back of the eye. These blood vessels often do not have adequate structural integrity and fluid leaks from them into the surrounding tissue. This causes swelling in the tissue disrupting the natural shape of the retina and adversely affecting vision. The current first-line treatment prevents this aberrant blood vessel formation, reducing the fluid levels in the retina. However, up to 50% of people have refractory DME, where the fluid of oedema remains, despite treatment, increasing the risk of sight loss. The new treatment type proposed in this project targets this fluid remaining on the retina. The way the treatment works means it could be used in combination with current treatments and should be effective for all patients, aligning with the Fighting Blindness research priority of providing treatment to all patients at risk of sight loss.

Joint 2nd place: Dr Matilda BibaTUD Dublin

‘Do selective blue-light filtering lenses improve visual performance and quality of life in patients with inherited retinal disease?’

Award amount: €5,000

Some blue light is harmful to vision and eye health. It can cause eyestrain and glare, making everything more difficult to see and may even cause damage to the eye. Blue light exposure has increased dramatically over the last decade due to the overuse of digital screens, electronic devices, and modern lighting. The problems caused by blue light are especially relevant to individuals with inherited retinal diseases (IRD), who are particularly vulnerable to possible negative effects of blue light. This study seeks to explore whether limiting some blue light is beneficial to individuals with IRD as a means to optimise their vision, quality of life, ocular health and sleep. This will be achieved through the use of spectacle lenses designed to block harmful blue light and only allow the more beneficial blue light into the eye. The study aims to establish accessible therapies (blue-blocking glasses) for individuals with sight loss and to determine if there is a relationship between visual function and retina structure. It also loosely aligns with Fighting Blindness’s novel medical therapy (NMT) priority area but instead examines non-drug therapy options to help preserve retinal function and structure rather than drug therapies.

Joint 2nd place: Dr Lucia Celkova, TCD Dublin

‘Establishing an iPSC-derived RPE model to study PANoptosis in RPE pathology.’

Award amount: €5,000

The retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) is formed by a single layer of specialized cells that support the retina at the back of the eye. RPE cells are indispensable for normal vision and if they become damaged, this may lead to progressive sight loss and even blindness. To be able to prevent, or at least slow down, this gradual degradation, we need to first understand not only what triggers the damage, but also how exactly these cells become dysfunctional and die. In order to do this, reliable and reproducible models are required that can adequately mimic the native RPE to allow us to study the underlying molecular processes in health and disease. However, in the case of the RPE, such models remain rather limited, and therefore, this project aims to establish a stem cell-derived RPE cell culture model. Subsequently, Dr Lucia intends to use the above model to study the phenomenon of RPE cell death in response to double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). dsRNA is one of the drusen components in age-related macular degeneration (AMD) to cause RPE dysfunction. Although we now know how it is sensed by RPE cells and what immune responses it triggers within the RPE, the exact mechanism of how these cells die is still unclear. Dr Lucia wishes to address this gap in knowledge by investigating the recently described concept of multiarmed cell death, termed PANoptosis, which if inhibited, could simultaneously block several alternative cell death pathways. Importantly, the identification of such central regulators would represent a novel universal therapeutic strategy to prevent RPE degeneration.

Congratulations to Joanne, Matilda, and Lucia!

The quality of applicants was very high and we look forward to watching your careers develop and progress.

If you have any questions please contact Research at: research@fightingblindness.ie.