Fighting the invisible enemy

A novel research collaboration is bringing together expertise in eye medicine and solar radiation to improve understanding of how to prevent eye damage and sight loss from exposure to sunlight.

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The outcomes could further experts’ understanding of eye health, informing treatments and surgery.

They could be especially significant in developing regions such as in the tropics, where expertise in treating eye disease is limited.

Research and teaching initiatives could help address an overlooked health aspect of climatic change – the impact of increased ultraviolet radiation in sunlight on human sight.

A generous donation from Derek and Maureen Moss, matched by the University, will support the study into how ultraviolet (UV) radiation affects the health of the human eye.

Scientists will examine whether the risk to sight from natural light is intensifying as the world’s climate changes, and how UV-related damage to eye tissue might be prevented or alleviated.

Their three-year project, which began recently, combines expertise in solar radiation and climate change from the School of GeoSciences with clinical capability and stem cell expertise from the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.

Under projected climate change, researchers expect that UV radiation will change in various regions of the globe, depending on complex atmospheric processes and other factors.

In the tropics, however, where UV levels are already higher than elsewhere, further increases are expected.

The research will evaluate current knowledge on the links between UV exposure and eye disease – specifically age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.

It will aim to determine the current incidence of such disease around the world, as well as gaining understanding of how UV exposure causes harm to sight, and how medical intervention might prevent or correct this.

Researchers will then design experiments using cells – building a virtual eye in a dish – to mimic the exposure of the human eye to UV radiation in different environments.

Cross disciplinary research of this type is hard to find, working at the interface of environmental photobiology, the pathways of disease, and the fundamentals of cell behaviour – no-one else is approaching this challenge in the way that Edinburgh is.

Professor Baljean Dhillon

They will adapt instrumentation from GeoSciences to measure the amount of radiation to which eyes are exposed.

The study’s findings will support treatment and disease prevention as the global environment continues to undergo further change.

The research builds on Edinburgh’s established expertise in eye disease and its cross-collaborative approach to tackling research challenges.

Dr Andy McLeod of the School of GeoSciences, who will jointly supervise the research, said: “GeoSciences at Edinburgh has experience of studies into the effects of UV on plants and ecosystems, and has a range of UV measurement and exposure facilities. Combining this expertise with that of the Centre for Regenerative Medicine and the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences provides an ideal combination to progress this exciting project.”

Professor Baljean Dhillon, of the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, who will also jointly supervise the study, said:

“Combining expertise from stem cell medicine, the clinic and GeoSciences will help us to get a better understanding of the long-term exposure to UV radiation.

“Cross disciplinary research of this type is hard to find, working at the interface of environmental photobiology, the pathways of disease, and the fundamentals of cell behaviour – no-one else is approaching this challenge in the way that Edinburgh is.”

In a related area, talented students from developing countries are to benefit from support to undertake distance learning scholarships in eye surgery.

Applicants from Kenya, Nigeria and Ethiopia have won scholarships for 2017 entry, alongside successful scholars from Mauritius, Pakistan and Brazil.

The six students – all of whom are advanced trainee or independently practising ophthalmologists – will have their tuition fees covered and be given support with getting online, thanks to the David E I Pyott Master of Surgery in Clinical Ophthalmology Scholarship.

Students from developing countries are eligible to apply for support for the part-time, distance learning Master of Surgery in Clinical Ophthalmology.

Each scholar is provided with access to a broadband facility and a laptop computer.

The programme has been designed to enable clinical learning, develop clinical research skills and provide a platform from which ophthalmologists in training are mentored while living and working in their resident countries.

Teaching staff are mindful of the varied backgrounds in which students practise and the potential resources available to them.

Professor Dhillon, Programme Director, said: “Distance learning in surgery is novel and has many clear advantages. Students can continue to practise surgery in their resident countries, and to study without the need to lose income or to relocate.

“The output of our research project into UV radiation is directly relevant to the practice of opthalmologists who are working in environments where high UV exposure or warming climates are important.

“More support for work like this would enable us to consider conjoined research projects with partners in relevant countries.”

A bequest to the future

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Robert O Curle portrait
A portrait of Robert O Curle with his beloved dog Frisky, which hangs at King’s Buildings

A generous bequest from a former staff member is enabling the creation of a £1 million high-tech research suite for studies into eye diseases.

Funds from the Robert O Curle Charitable Trust will support medical and veterinary research, including the new facility at Edinburgh Bioquarter.

The donation, worth almost £1.2 million, will also help provide equipment for the University’s Hospital for Small Animals, and laboratory tools to support conservation research at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.

Robert Ormiston Curle served as the University’s Accountant from 1946 until his retirement in 1980.

His sister Hester, a graduate of the University, established a charitable trust in his name after his death in 1991.

For many years, the Trust has supported University projects in human and animal health.

Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University, recently awarded the distinction of University Benefactor to the Robert O Curle Charitable Trust, in recognition of its generosity.

The award was made to the charity’s trustees at an event at the Easter Bush campus. A plaque was unveiled during the event, which is to be installed in the atrium of the teaching building at the Vet School.