ORIA funding helping to advance stem cell research into eye disease By Alice Pébay, Neuroregeneration Research Unit, Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA)

Alice Pébay in the research lab at CERA

Alice Pébay in the research lab at CERA.

Every year, the Ophthalmic Research Institute of Australia (ORIA) awards grants to ophthalmologists and vision scientists across Australia, funding cutting-edge research into the diagnosis and treatment of all major eye diseases. Since its establishment in 1953, ORIA has supported hundreds of local researchers to advance ophthalmic research in the region – moving one step closer to the prevention of avoidable blindness.

In 2012 I was given a great opportunity when my team secured our first grant from ORIA. The grant enabled us to conduct research into the use of stem cells for the treatment of retinal disease and glaucoma.

With support from ORIA, we were able to build on the work of Japanese scientist and Nobel Prize winner Professor Shinya Yamanaka, who was the first to describe how stem cells can be made from tissue taken from patients. The discovery was revolutionary because it showed that any cell of the body, obtained by a simple biopsy, could now be converted into a stem cell and subsequently be guided to become a cell from the heart, lung, eyes or any other organ. Based on this, we were able to generate patient stem cells and guide them to become cells that form the retina and the optic nerve. The ORIA funding contributed to an expanding body of knowledge on why cells in the body degenerate, and to subsequently finding treatments to stop or halter the progression of certain eye diseases.

One grant from ORIA allowed others to flow in and we attracted philanthropic funds. We were able to expand the scope of our research from ‘boutique’ work to the development of a robot and, now, we are able to grow hundreds of patient stem cells at a time. To see what happens in disease and what goes wrong by looking at 150 stem cells is much more powerful than looking at one or two.

Shortly after receiving the initial funding, we received another ORIA grant which would support the development of larger scale modelling using automation and robotics.

A full interview with Alice Pébay featured in the 2018 Winter issue of Eye2Eye, which can be accessed here.