The time is right to prioritise eye health research

eye health research, eye treatment

Keith Valentine, Chief Executive of Fight for Sight, explains why eye health research needs to be on the political agenda

I make no apology for starting this piece with a demand, a call on the UK government. I ask them to take action and improve access for all to eye treatment, so that unnecessary sight loss, and the subsequent impact on quality of life, can be prevented. This is particularly pertinent given our growing ageing population.

Sight loss and blindness have a devastating impact on people’s lives. But this isn’t inevitable. When I was told at 11 years old that I would one day lose my sight, I was told that treatment for my condition would come in 10 years’ time. That day has come and gone many times over. If it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I am determined to make it can happen for the next generation.

The time for major investment and awareness is now. The challenges are monumental but so, too, are the potential gains.

The challenges

Every six minutes, someone in the UK is told they’re losing their sight. (1) Yet investment in research remains low, with less than £10 per person with sight loss being spent on finding new treatments. (2) This is despite there being well over 100 different sight loss conditions.

Lockdowns and restrictions due to COVID-19 have not only impacted research but brought delays in eye care and access to treatment, with a recent report estimating the net impact on the cost of sight loss in the UK to be £1.7 billion. (3) Another survey revealed 65% of the population are overdue for routine sight tests, meaning less early detection which could lead to prevention. (4)

Investing in ground-breaking science is the answer

Put simply, research transforms lives. It is the reason we have the capacity to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19 through vaccines and novel treatments in the last two years and why we can now easily treat cataracts. It’s also why recent breakthroughs in Anti-VEGFs have seen new treatments like Leucentis and Avastin slow down the progression of sight loss in people with diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration.

Investing in science brings incredible rewards

Since 1953, when Fight for Sight’s founder Professor Norman Ashton made a vital discovery that helped save premature babies’ sight, right up to today’s research efforts utilising some of the most cutting-edge technologies, science continues to provide innovative solutions.

Take Professor John Marshall MBE, who invented and patented the revolutionary Excimer laser to correct refractive disorders in laser surgery. Over 40 million procedures have now been carried out worldwide.

Then there is a study by Professor Gus Gazzard which showed laser-based treatment for glaucoma is more effective than eye drops, potentially saving the NHS millions in the process.

More recently, Fight for Sight funded researcher Dr Gavin Arno, identified new genetic associations with eye diseases as part of the government’s 100,000 genomes project. (5) Until now, geneticists could only study up to about 2% of the three billion letter genome. However, the results of this study will potentially improve diagnosis by 10-15% and help make the case for NHS England to become the first globally to offer the technology in routine tests for rare inherited eye diseases.

Eye research lends itself to collaboration

The eye can crucially forewarn us of ailments in other parts of the body. Today, retinal images can help diagnose conditions including anaemia, high blood pressure and diabetes. We are also investigating the link between arthritis and eye inflammation.

The UK is widely acknowledged as a global leader in vision research. Positive developments and partnerships throughout the devolved nations need the backing of the UK government to maintain the pace and momentum for new discoveries.

Sadly, we still see numerous projects fail to progress from promising early research to possible new therapies or treatments. That is why it is so vital that Fight for Sight and others continue to invest in fundamental science in the eye to ensure translation into new treatments for patients. Here, governments have a role to play in supporting early discovery and translational research, breaking down regulatory barriers and enabling UK-wide charitable, academic and industrial partnerships.

This is vital if we are to bridge the gap and ensure that “bench to bedside” research is successfully carried out.

A single, focused, collaborative approach

The pandemic has shown that even the biggest obstacles can be tackled when we come together with a single focus. Accelerating action towards treatments took an unprecedented level of investment, attention and political will. I strongly believe we must learn from this experience and apply what so clearly accelerated COVID-19 research to another pandemic of our age – sight loss.

Together is always stronger, and we must urgently forge partnerships with a single-mindedness, to really make a difference. Only with significant investment, true cross-sector working and government commitment can we finally end sight loss and create a world everyone can see.

 

References

1. From Time to Focus report- commissioned by Fight for Sight in 2019.

2. From Time to Focus report- commissioned by Fight for Sight in 2019 – calculated from UK Health Research Analysis 2018. [https://hrcsonline.net/reports/analysis-reports/uk-health-research- analysis-2018/]

3. This includes a reduction in health service utilisation, and an increase in cost due to delayed or missed treatments. This is from Deloitte Access Economics (2017) Incidence and risk of sight loss and blindness in the UK, RNIB.[https://www.rnib.org.uk/professionals/knowledge-and- research-hub/incidence-and-risk-sight-loss-and-blindness-uk]

4. https://www.aop.org.uk/ot/industry/high-street/2020/09/22/survey- finds-65-of-the-population-are-overdue-for-routine-sight-tests

5. The project aims to sequence genomes from around 85,000 patients affected by rare disease or cancer. [https://www.genomicsengland.co.uk/initiatives/100000-genomes- projecthttps://www.genomicsengland.co.uk/initiatives/100000-geno mes-project]

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Chief Executive
Fight for Sight
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