Macular Disease Foundation Australia (MDFA) has awarded more than $1 million in research funding to eight promising projects, in a ceremony marking 10 years of significant advances in the search for a cure to Australia’s leading cause of blindness.
The grants were presented to eight cutting-edge Australian researchers who are working to reduce the incidence and impact of macular disease by His Excellency the Honourable David Hurley, Governor-General of Australia, at Admiralty House in Sydney.
This 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.
Celebrating MDFA’s 20th anniversary and a decade of the MDFA Research Grants Program, this $1m investment brings MDFA’s total commitment to $5.1m since 2011. MDFA is now Australia’s largest source of research funding in the field of macular disease outside of government.
MDFA awarded six research grants worth a total of $935,000. An additional $90,000 will fund two new early-career researchers undertaking innovative ‘blue sky’ research into macular disease and is only possible as a result of a generous bequest made in memory of the late Faye Grant.
MDFA CEO Dee Hopkins says MDFA 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.Dee Hopkins
MDFA is proud to play its part in supporting and funding these rising stars.
“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,” Ms Hopkins says.
“MDFA funding is crucial and often snowballs into much larger investments from the NHMRC and other funding bodies, not to mention significant advancements in treatment and better outcomes for the macular disease community.”
MDFA awarded grants to researchers investigating potential gene therapies for AMD as well as use of innovative imaging techniques that could help improve our understanding on the causes of AMD and develop novel treatment strategies.
One project will use human eye cells to create disease models in the laboratory and explore the possibility of blocking the actions of molecules known as cytokines to treat macular oedema.
MDFA Research Grants are also funding a pilot diet, exercise and social interaction program designed to boost the mental and physical wellbeing of people living with AMD, plus a study to measure AMD patients’ quality of life – including the financial burden of the disease.
The Grant Family Fund is supporting projects that create a macula-containing organoid that will then be used as perfect models for macular degeneration, as well as manipulating genes to provide novel insights into the pathogenesis of AMD and potentially contribute to the development of new treatments for AMD.
Applications were subject to a rigorous assessment process based on NHMRC criteria to ensure that successful applicants meet the highest standards.
MDFA Research Grants
Researcher: Associate Professor 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: Professor 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: Associate Professor 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.
Grand Family Funding
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.
About Macular Disease Foundation Australia (MDFA)
MDFA is the peak national body representing the voice of the macular disease community. It is committed to reducing the incidence and impact of macular disease, the leading cause of blindness and severe vision loss in Australia. It provides a range of information and support services via its National Helpline 1800 111 709 and website www.mdfoundation.com.au.
About MDFA’s Research Grants Program
MDFA’s Research Grants Program was launched in 2011. Over the past decade, MDFA has invested $5.1 million in world-class Australian researchers – the largest non-government source of research funds for macular disease in Australia. Including this 2021 round of funding, MDFA Research Grants have supported 29 projects by 25 different researchers.
In 2021, MDFA also launched the Grant Family Fund, which provides grants to early-career researchers for innovative and creative ‘blue sky’ projects in the field of macular disease. The Grant Family Fund is a biennial grant opportunity made possible by a generous bequest from the estate of the late Faye Grant.
About macular disease
Macular disease covers a range of painless conditions that affect the central retina (the macula) at the back of the eye. The most common are age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and diabetic retinopathy (DR), including diabetic macular oedema (DMO). AMD accounts for 50 per cent of blindness in Australia. One in seven (approximately 1.4 million) Australians over the age of 50 have some evidence of AMD.