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Case studies

22 August, 2016

Worldwide collaborations to combat eye disease

Professor Usha Chakravarthy, Centre for Public Health

When academics at Queen’s talk about making a global impact, they may well have people like Usha Chakravarthy in mind. In addition to her role as Professor of Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences for the University and the Royal Victoria Hospital, she is also Chair of the Ophthalmology Group for the UK Clinical Research Network; a member of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists Academic Group; a member of the scientific advisory panel for AMD Alliance International; a member of the steering committee for a Lasker Foundation/International Retina Research Foundation Initiative; an international member of the Macula Society; external examiner and advisor to the University of Malaya; and a scientific panel member for the German Medical Research Council and the Australian Health Foundation.

She is also a leading figure in the Association for Research and Vision in Ophthalmology (ARVO). And at its meeting in Seattle in May 2013, she was made a Gold Fellow in recognition of her work and her contribution to the association. She has stepped down as programme chair for ARVO’s retina section, but continues in an executive role on one of its international committees.

At the Seattle meeting she also introduced a discussion on her most recent major project: the IVAN trial. This was the NHS-funded clinical trial which she conducted over four years into treatment for wet AMD – age-related macular degeneration – involving more than 600 patients in 23 UK hospitals. The research concluded that use of the drug Avastin was as effective a treatment as the more expensive option Lucentis, paving the way for anestimated saving to the NHS of £84m a year.

Of her research she says, ‘Since 1982 there has been a sea change. For the first few years there was a trickle of people in this field at Queen’s, but success breeds success. We were lucky to get some very large grants from the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust and so we were able to build up a body of people working in vision research. Through the ‘90s we continued to consolidate that programme. We had people like Alan Stitt joining the group and we’ve since appointed something like 15 senior academics. We also have a number of postdoc fellows and a building which is now almost entirely occupied by the Centre for Vision and Vascular Science.’

She is committed to her many contacts away from Belfast. ‘I’ve always been very active in attending international meetings. You network when you’re there and if you have a particular reputation people want to engage with you. In my case, this has led to a lot of collaborations and joint publications. I was part of an international consortium of retina specialists who were successful in obtaining a major European Commission grant. That helped to cement relationships in this area between the UK and Europe. I also have many contacts in the USA – I did a sabbatical there in 2005 – and I also received a big grant from the Wellcome Trust to work in India, which meant I established collaborations there – and so the international aspect of my work has flourished.’

A further example of Usha’s collaborative links is her work on two major projects, the EUREYE and INDEYE studies, with Professor Astrid Fletcher and her team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Their joint research has secured in excess of £1m in grant income and has produced around 40 publications. And she sees exciting work ahead at the Centre. ‘We’ve got some major studies on the genetics of AMD. We’re taking on new projects, particularly in the field of diabetes.

‘We also have so many gifted researchers coming through now and I’d like to see some of the younger people taking on more of a leadership role. They’re energetic and enthusiastic and I see a great future for them.’

Usha has come a long way since she arrived in Belfast in 1982. Her achievements have steadily increased her professional prestige, in the process enhancing the reputation of Queen’s and Northern Ireland in medical innovation.