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MDFA awards $1 million in research grants to eight projects

Eight Australian researchers are taking their projects to the next level with a share of more than $1 million in research funding from Macular Disease Foundation Australia (MDFA).

Australian Governor-General Mr David Hurley presented the grants in a ceremony marking a decade of the MDFA Research Grants Program, with this million-dollar-plus investment bringing MDFA’s total commitment to $5.1m since 2011.

The latest 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.

MDFA awarded six research grants, worth a total of $935,000, to Associate Professor Chi Luu from the Centre for Eye Research Australia, Professor Justine Smith from Flinders University, Associate Professor Matthew Simunovic from the Save Sight Institute at University of Sydney, Ms Diana Tang from Macquarie University, Dr Sheela Kumaran from UNSW and Dr Yvette Wooff from Australian National University.

Dee Hopkins.

An additional $90,000 will fund two new early-career researchers undertaking innovative ‘blue sky’ research into macular disease, which MDFA said was possible due to a generous bequest made in memory of the late Faye Grant.

The Grant Family Fund, named in her honour, will support the work of Dr Ting Zhang and Dr Anai Gonzalez Cordero, both from University of Sydney, who are investigating AMD at a cellular level.

MDFA CEO Dee Hopkins said the organisation 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,” Hopkins said.

“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.”

In addition to supporting significant advancements in treatment and better outcomes for the macular disease community, Hopkins said MDFA funding often snowballs into much larger investments from the NHMRC and other funding bodies.

For further details of the grant recipient’s projects, visit www.mdfoundation.com.au.

MDFA Research Grants – 2021

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.

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