CERA’s next chapter

Following his recent appointment Professor Keith Martin, the new managing director of CERA, spoke to Callum Glennen about his plans for the organisation’s future.

Since its establishment in 1996, the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) has built an enviable record in the international ophthalmic research community.“It’s really an incredible institution as far as science goes,” Professor Keith Martin, the new managing director of CERA, told Insight. “There are a lot of people here dedicated to finding new treatments for the blinding eye disease we are all working on.”

This year saw former CERA director Professor Jonathan Crowston depart the organisation after a decade in the top job. Since his commencement in February, Martin has spent time familiarising himself with the organisation’s current strengths as he begins to drive it towards new heights.

Specifically, Martin said the bionic eye project led by Dr Penny Allen and Professor Robyn Guymer, and Associate Professor Peter van Wijngaarden’s work on ocular biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease and diabetic retinopathy screenings are particularly noteworthy ventures.

“The other thing about CERA is that we have got a lot of clinician scientists involved, and that help focus the questions we ask on what will really make a difference in the lives of our patients,” Martin added. “We’ve also got a wide range of links with biotechnology and industry, and a really good board. And our strong relationships with the University of Melbourne and the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital put us in a great position to do translational research, taking the discoveries we make in the lab to develop new treatments for patients.

“I have to pay credit to the great leadership here before I started, particularly Jonathan Crowston who was instrumental in pushing CERA forward to where it stands today. I also think we now have a fantastic team in place at the executive level to support our mission and help our researchers.”

Driving research

Martin said that he hopes his appointment at CERA, as well as his role as the Ringland Anderson Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Melbourne, will help further develop the research base locally. Another focus will be on building up the talent the organisation already boasts, as well as the junior researchers now coming through its ranks.

“We cover all bases really, from understanding the fundamental basic science of eye disease, through to developing new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches, right the way through to finding better ways to quantify the impact of those treatments,” Martin said.

“My job is to try and help drive that research forward in a way that makes a difference to patients, and really allow people to get on with doing that research. I also want to look to strengthen and bring in more talent on the basic science side as well. That’s something that I think we need to focus on.”

An undoubtedly difficult position to fill, there are few people more suited than Martin. In 1990 he graduated with first-class honours in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge, and from the University of Oxford’s Clinical School in 1993. He trained in general medicine and neurology at the Hammersmith Hospital and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London and the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

He completed his higher specialist training in ophthalmology in Cambridge before undertaking three years of research and clinical fellowship training in glaucoma at the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and the Institute of Ophthalmology in London.

In 2010 he was elected as the first professor of ophthalmology at the University of Cambridge, making him, at the time, the University Clinical School’s youngest full professor.

During his time in Cambridge, Martin was also involved in the establishment, and subsequent sale of, gene therapy firm Quethera.

Founded with seed funding from the University of Cambridge and other partners of less than £550,000 (AU$1.03 m), Quethera developed a treatment for glaucoma that introduces foreign DNA into cells, prompting those cells to produce therapeutic proteins. Last year Quethera was sold to Japanese firm Astellas Pharma for £85 million (AU$156 m).Martin said he would like to bring the experience he gained from building and selling Quethera to Melbourne.

“My motivation [for Quethera’s sale] was I couldn’t really see how we were going to get some of these new gene therapy treatments out to patients without industry involvement. The scale of support available from grants and traditional funding mechanisms was just not sufficient to get it done, so we had to go down this route,” Martin said.

“There was a real entrepreneurial aspect to Cambridge at that time, and people were encouraged to do this. That’s something that I hope will come more and more to Melbourne.”

Other aspects Martin would like to introduce include more international collaboration, potentially with institutions across America, Singapore, Cambridge and Melbourne, and to focus on the repair of the optic nerve. As president of the World Glaucoma Association, this is a particularly passionate topic for him.

“Between 10% and 15% of people with glaucoma currently progress to develop severe visual loss even though they’ve got access to be the best available current treatments, so it’s my dream that our research at CERA and the University of Melbourne will revolutionise the area and really improve the quality of their life and future for these people,” Martin said.

Australia might also be one the best places in the world to undertake this mission from.

“There is a lot of strong collaborative work already ongoing. Again, I highlight ocular genetics, where a lot of the major centres around Australia are already very joined up, very collaborative, and are already pulling in the resources to do studies that are world-leading,” Martin said.

“The new funding environment we are encountering, like the Medical Research Futures Fund, is actually encouraging big thinking and collaborative working all the way across medical research. I think we’re strong working together and I want to CERA to work in partnership to build strong collaborations, and the hope is that these partnerships will be internationally competitive and bring real benefits to Australia.”

The timing for international collaboration is perfect; the World Glaucoma Congress 2019 recently brought researchers from all corners of the globe to CERA’s doorstep.

“It has been a huge amount of work for many of us to bring the World Glaucoma Congress to Melbourne, so I am delighted that the event was such a great success, Martin said. “We had over 2,500 registered participants from 91 countries around the world making this Congress one of the largest meetings related to glaucoma ever worldwide.”

Martin said that the event was also a perfect opportunity to showcase Australian glaucoma research on a global scale.

“I was also excited to see our Glaucoma Patient session attended by over 500 glaucoma patients – both rooms were absolutely full. Overall, the meeting was a great success and Melbourne turned on the charm for our international visitors, although it did of course live up to its ‘four seasons in a day’ reputation too.”

With the energy around the even and Martin’s passion for the cause, CERA’s next era is off to a running start.

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