From Preserving to Restoring Sight: The New Frontier

Professor Stephanie Watson

Save Sight Institute welcomes Clinical Professor Stephanie Watson, best known for her work restoring sight with exciting new stem cell techniques.

Professor Watson has joined the SSI research team, further strengthening the Institute's expertise in converting promising laboratory results into clinical patient trials.

Professor Watson's innovative research was internationally recognised in 2009 when she and Save Sight Institute colleague, Associate Professor Nick Di Girolamo, were awarded 'The People’s Choice Award' on The New Inventors television program (ABC). The award recognised their stem cell work undertaken at UNSW and Sydney Eye Hospital, restoring vision for people with certain blinding disorders.

The technique pioneered by Watson and Di Girolamo involves taking a small biopsy of stem cells from a patients 'good' eye and placing these on a contact lens for ten days to reproduce and grow. The contact lens is then placed on the patient's 'bad' eye for a further ten days, gradually regrowing damaged tissue inside the eye and ultimately improving vision.

"We have had some really great results with patients undergoing stem cell trials" says Watson "but the challenge we face is how to treat people when both eyes are affected. We’re investigating a number of promising methods, such as donor cells, and are even moving beyond the transfer of stem cells to instead stimulate tissue growth with natural or synthesised growth factors."

In one such case, Watson treated a two-year old child with severe chemical injuries to both eyes, using amniotic membrane from a donated placenta. The girl has since regained most of her vision.

"Growth factors, such as those present in amniotic membrane, are like fertiliser for a cell" says Watson "and we’ve found that if stem cells are not available or not viable, it’s possible to transfer just growth factors to stimulate cell growth. This is a very exciting area of research which we hope will help many people in the future!".