Case studies

22 August, 2016

Diabetes related blindness

Professor Alan Stitt, Centre for Experimental Medicine

Alan Stitt, McCauley Chair of Experimental Ophthalmology, is aiming to use his research to help people suffering from one of the major sight-threatening diseases - diabetic retinopathy. He also helps them cope with their fear. ‘People are frightened of going blind. I talk to patient groups about my research. I tell them what causes diabetic retinopathy and the new strategies we’re developing to treat it.

‘At an event in W5 I spoke to the parents of kids who had just been diagnosed with diabetes. That’s a difficult thing to pitch. The parents are scared but they also want to hear what the progress is. They wonder – is there going to be better treatment for their son or daughter when they get older and retinopathy becomes a risk?’ And that is Professor Stitt’s goal.

As Director of the Centre for Vision and Vascular Science at Queen’s, he and his colleagues are engaged in world class laboratory and clinic-based research with the goal of understanding the causes of diseases and improving outcomes for patients.

‘The two main pillars in our unit, in terms of eye research, are diabetes and age-related macular degeneration - AMD. These are leading causes of vision loss but current treatments for both are limited. This affects quality of life for individuals and there are enormous economic costs for the Health Service. So there’s a push towards understanding what causes these diseases and to improving treatments.’

Professor Stitt’s group is in the early stages of an ambitious research project using vascular stem cells to treat retinopathy. His funding base is impressive with major awards from the Medical Research Council, the US-based Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Fight for Sight, and the Sir Jules Thorn Charitable Trust.

‘This research is exciting because it harnesses stem cells, which we all have. They’re not embryo-derived stem cells so there isn’t any ethical issue around foetal tissue. The strategy is simple. You isolate the cells from blood, expand them in a laboratory setting and re-deliver to the donor where they help to repair damaged blood vessels. With some patients, their vascular stem cells might not be working so well so we also have this opportunity to fix this defect prior to delivery. For this ‘cell therapy’ the focus is on retinal diseases where blood vessels are progressively damaged over a period of time.

‘We have demonstrated that these stem cells can repair blood vessels in the damaged retina and this approach is being further developed for use in patients. It’s exhilarating to be involved in this research. When I talk to patients they easily grasp the concept. What we’re doing is offering a novel approach and a new therapy in an area where it is desperately needed.’

The work being carried out by the Centre has brought international renown and has attracted research students, post-doctoral scientists and academic leaders from all over the world. ‘We have many really talented researchers from across the globe. They come here to embrace new challenges, learn new skills and advance their career. Some stay in Northern Ireland, others move on to partner labs in the US, Europe or Australia. It is truly an international research programme. ‘We’re recognised around the world for what we do and we have a focused, strategic plan. Northern Ireland is a small place. Research-wise, we are competitive on the world stage. As our Centre grows and develops even further I fully expect our impact to be even bigger – which has major benefit for Northern Ireland.’

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