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Mother’s plight sparks $750K donation for LEI stem cell robot

Bronwyn Doak Rhonda Wyllie Telethon Western Australia stem cell robot

A mother’s moving speech about her sons’ blinding genetic condition has prompted a prominent Perth family to donate $750,000 for a stem cell robot at the Lions Eye Institute (LEI).

In a remarkable show of generosity, Mrs Rhonda Wyllie and her family will cover the full cost of the machine that can be used for research into many disorders. They were spurred by Ms Bronwyn Doak – whose two boys Eamon, 8, and Kealan, 6, both have Usher syndrome – after she spoke at the Leeuwin Lunch for Telethon in Margaret River on 26 May.

The Wyllie donation was a highlight of the event, which raised more than $3.55 million and allowed donors to fund a piece of medical equipment from the Telethon wishlist. The family has a strong affiliation with LEI, with the late Mr Bill Wyllie a long supporter of the institute and one of its patrons.

In a Western Australian first, the stem cell robot will potentially allow LEI researchers to save the sight of hundreds of children by accelerating the development of therapies for patients with inherited retinal diseases (IRDs).

The stem cell robot, or Fluent Automation Workstation, from Tecan, will operate 24/7 to develop organoids which researchers can use to test therapies.

By automating the cell culture work involved in producing human mini-organs, it can convert significantly more human skin cells into retina and other tissue types.

“Having a stem cell robot will be a game changer for our research,” LEI clinician researcher Dr Fred Chen, who has devoted much of his career to IRDs, said.

“It will allow researchers to develop treatments for [many] childhood diseases including cancer, diabetes and inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis and inherited retinal diseases. We have already discovered a treatment for one gene that causes inherited eye disease and it is our mission to discover treatments for all 250 types of genetic eye diseases.”

LEI’s Dr Fred Chen with a young Eamon Doak.

LEI managing director Professor Bill Morgan said the new piece of equipment would allow laboratory staff to work more efficiently and effectively to develop new drugs to treat IRDs such as retinitis pigmentosa, Usher syndrome and Stargardt disease.

“Having the stem cell robot will bring hope to families like the Doaks, whose two young boys Eamon and Kealan were both born with Usher syndrome,” he said.

“Usher syndrome is a particularly cruel disease. Children are born deaf and face becoming legally blind in their 20s or 30s. There are currently no treatments for Usher syndrome, and Eamon and his brother Kealan will soon start losing their sight without a medical breakthrough.”

Western Australian brothers Kealan, 6, and Eamon, 8, both have Usher syndrome.

Chen said the stem cell robot would help his team develop treatments the Doaks need to save their sons’ sight.

“It is critical we develop treatments for them now, to stop the degeneration of their retina,” he said.

“The robot will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We estimate we are five years away from crucial scientific discoveries that could save Eamon and Kealan’s sight.”

Ms Bronwyn Doak hoped they might receive a contribution towards the stem cell robot, so she was astonished at the Wyllie donation.

“Basil (Zempilas, who managed the bidding) asked me to come up and tell them what it would mean to us and I just said it would mean everything,” she told The West Australian.

“Then Rhonda got up and said, ‘It’s done’. Just like that. It was like something out of a movie. I couldn’t breathe, I was so overwhelmed by the generosity.”

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