New Melbourne research project launches major assault on age-related macular degeneration

Melbourne researchers,  including University of Melbourne's Professors Erica Fletcher and Alice Pébay, will lead the world’s most intensive investigation to uncover why some people with age-related macular degeneration are at much greater risk of losing their sight.

The world-first study, led by Professor Robyn Guymer from the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) and the University of Melbourne, is the largest ever assembled to determine the causes of the highest risk forms of AMD and develop new treatments to prevent vision loss.

The team, which also includes researchers from the University of Melbourne, 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 to tackle the disease, which affects millions of elderly people worldwide.

They team aim to utilise data drawn from tens of thousands of eye scans from the UK biobank and study the eye health of hundreds of Australian clinical trial patients.

Age-related macular degeneration affects one in seven people over 50 and is the leading cause of legal blindness and severe vision loss in Australia.

The study has received a $5 million from the National Medical Health and Research Council’s Synergy grants program, which support 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 risk factors that lead to about 25% of people with AMD to have the high risk characteristics.
  • Understand how the different genetic makeup influences different pathways important for the normal functioning of the eye.
  • Taking all the new information and understandings generated in this project, work towards a specific treatment to tackle this high risk AMD group.

“Currently, all cases of AMD are considered as one disease whereas there are differences that can be seen with careful investigation, and  it is now clear that within the disease AMD there is at least one group that appear to be at higher risk of losing vision and these are the people we want to concentrate on this project,’’ said Professor Guymer.

“Our recent LEAD study results, which treated early stages of AMD to slow progression, highlighted that the same treatment will not work for every case of AMD, and highlighted the need to understand the high risk group.’’

The new study will try to find genes that are associated specifically with the high-risk AMD group and from there work to understand the pathways that lead to the differences in groups.

“Understanding what is different about the high-risk group and why this group is more likely to lose vision, is the key to preventing it,’’ said Professor Guymer.

“In the past, AMD was diagnosed by simply looking in the back of the eye, but with new ways to image the eye we can see subtle differences between people which has been found to be very important clues to understanding each person’s risk of losing vision as the disease progresses.   This new understanding 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 and the Centre for Stem Cell Systems; Professor Melanie Bahlo and Dr Brendan Ansell from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Dr Zhichao Wu from the Centre for Eye Research Australia.