SSI Acquires World First Eye Tissue Archive

The Macular Research Group at Save Sight Institute has recently become the recipient of an important archive of human eye tissue. This collection incorporates more than 400 human eyes. Each eye comes with clinical information obtained during life. This unique clinicopathological archive is the result of a lifetime of dedicated work by two ophthalmologists, Doctors Shirley and John Sarks.

No other archive of this size and completeness exists in the world.

Dr Shirley Sarks

Dr Shirley Sarks

The collection, annotation and maintenance of this archive has been a labour of love for Shirley and John. Begun in the 1960’s, the initiative has been almost exclusively self-funded. Each eye belonged to a patient of Shirley or John, who chose to donate their eyes after death for research into diseases that cause blindness.

A resource that has produced pioneering observations

The archive consists of tissue embedded in paraffin or resin as well as stained glass microscopic slides, clinical photos and electron microscopic photos. In 1976, Shirley published a survey of 378 eyes from this archive and established for the first time the histopathological grading system for age-related macular degeneration. This article now ranks as one of the top ten ophthalmology publications of all time. The archive has generated numerous published studies since, including many novel observations that have stood the test of time. These include establishing the specific lesions of AMD in human tissue, paving the way for biochemical characterisation and determination of cellular and genetic mechanisms.

Tissue from the collection also established that vitelliform lesions consisted of photoreceptor outer segments, documented changes in the choriocapillaris and Bruch’s membrane with age and established the natural history of the development of abnormal new blood vessels in AMD. Data from the collection also led to the pioneering observation that macrophages and other cells of the immune system were involved in the development of the lesions of AMD, a major paradigm shift that re-cast AMD as a disease of abnormal immune regulation rather than “senile degeneration”. This work laid the necessary foundations for more recent ground breaking discoveries, including those involving the complement factor H gene.

Dr John Sarks

Dr John Sarks

An opportunity to learn, teach, collaborate and discover

The wealth of information in the collection will enable us to answer important questions about ageing and disease in the human eye. In 2007, Shirley, John and Dr Svetlana Cherepanoff examined tissue in the collection with others to establish the threshold at which normal ageing becomes AMD. This is a critical point in disease development and the focus of research for potential treatments. The gift of this collection to our research group allows us to continue this important work.

The archive also represents many other retinal diseases, including diabetic retinopathy and retinal artery or vein occlusion. A number of eye tumours are also included.

The Sarks’ have not only generously shared their tissue collection with us, they have provided funding for a research assistant to digitise the collection, so that valuable slides, images and clinical information can be preserved in perpetuity and made available to researchers and doctors.

Tissue in paraffin blocks from the collection can now be studied at the genetic and molecular level using techniques such as DNA extraction, RNA extraction and laser capture microdissection. Tissue in resin blocks can be studied using immunogold labelling and electron microscopic examination of sub-cellular structures.

Professors Mark Gillies and Peter McCluskey together with Dr Cherepanoff, all from Save Sight Institute, will share in the stewardship of this unique and valuable collection to ensure that current and future generations of eye researchers and doctors benefit from the data and help find cures for blinding diseases.