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    Gene therapy and macular degeneration

    Meet a researcher: Associate Professor Matthew Simunovic

    Working to restore vision with a biological ‘bionic eye’

    There is no treatment for late-stage atrophic age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – but thanks to an MDFA Research Grant, A/Prof Matthew Simunovic is now working on what he describes as “the biological equivalent of the bionic retina”.

    This cutting-edge approach, dubbed ‘optogenetics’, gives hope that people who’ve lost their vision might, one day, be able to see again.

    Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a chronic and painless disease of the macula. The macula is an area at the very centre of the retina, at the back of your eye.

    AMD is the most common macular disease in Australia, responsible for half of all blindness and severe vision loss in this country.

    MDFA Research Grants Program funding is now being directed to an exciting new study that will investigate ways to restore vision for people living with dry AMD and other early onset forms of macular degeneration.

    The study is being conducted by Associate Professor Matthew Simunovic from the Save Sight Institute and Sydney Eye Hospital. He is one of the successful recipients of MDFA Research Grants Program funding announced in May 2021.

    Optogenetic restoration

    The MDFA-funded research project is titled ‘Optogenetic restoration of vision in macular degeneration with high-sensitivity Type I and Type II opsins’.

    A/Prof Simunovic explains that AMD and other early onset forms of macular degeneration result in blindness to the loss of the light-detecting cone and rod cells of the macula, as well as the underlying layer of pigmented cells which supports them.

    “However, the nerve cells which normally relay information from the rods and cones to the brain persist,” A/Prof Simunovic said.

    “We aim to restore vision by making these surviving relay cells (known as retinal ganglion cells) light-sensitive.

    “This would effectively bypass the diseased layers of the retina.”

    To do this, A/Prof Simunovic and his team will use gene therapy, injecting a non-disease-causing virus into the eye to introduce the genetic code for light-sensitive proteins into retinal ganglion cells.

    “This approach can be considered a biological equivalent of the bionic retina, and it has been termed ‘optogenetics’: it offers the hope of central vision restoration to those with advanced vision loss from macular degeneration,” A/Prof Simunovic said.

    About the Research Grants Program

    The study has been allocated $274,136 over three years. The grant was announced by His Excellency the Honourable David Hurley, Governor-General of Australia, at an event at Admiralty House in Sydney.

    Supporting research is one of the key aims of MDFA and possible only with the support of generous donors. Since 2011, MDFA has become the largest non-government source of research funding for macular disease in Australia.

    The ultimate aim of research is to make sight-saving discoveries for all macular conditions. However, many MDFA-funded projects are directed to foundational research, which is crucial to our understanding of macular disease.

    Posted: 19 May 2021

    It offers the hope of central vision restoration to those with advanced vision loss from macular degeneration.

    A/Prof Simunovic

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