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Major Melbourne study a world-first for AMD

An Australian-led study has received $5 million to undertake the world’s most intensive investigation into why a particular group of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) patients are at greater risk of vision loss.

Professor Robyn Guymer, from the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) and the University of Melbourne (UniMelb), will lead the world-first study, the largest ever assembled to determine the causes of a high-risk form of AMD and develop new treatments.

The study 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.

The research team, which also includes other researchers from the UniMelb, 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.

The study has received a $5 million from the National Medical Health and Research Council’s Synergy grants program. It supports 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, Guymer said all cases of AMD were lumped together as one disease, but it had become clear there was at least one group of patients at increased risk of vision loss.

She pointed to the landmark LEAD study, in which patients with less severe signs of AMD treated with nanosecond laser therapy showed nearly a four-fold decrease in progression rate of their disease.

In contrast, participants in the same study with more severe signs of disease had a doubling of their progression rate to late stages of AMD when compared to participants who were not treated at all.

“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.