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Great foresight

10 April 2017
Seeking to cure macular degeneration

Opthalmologists Dr John Sarks AM (MBBS ’56) and Dr Shirley Sarks AM have been collecting human eye tissue for more than 40 years. Their legacy now passes to the University.

The part of your eye that provides the central detail of your vision is called the macula. You use it to read and look at faces. Imagine then how debilitating macular degeneration can be, as it puts an ever-growing gap in the centre of everything you look at.

According to the World Health Organization, macular degeneration is the main cause of damaged eyesight in developed countries. In Australia, government figures suggest that more than a million people show evidence of the condition, and this number will grow dramatically over the coming decade. There is no cure.

Dr John Sarks AM and Dr Shirley Sarks AM

Dr John Sarks AM (MBBS '56) and Dr Shirley Sarks AM

As the race is on to find treatments, the gift made by Dr John Sarks and Dr Shirley Sarks represents a unique and invaluable asset for researchers in the field. The gift supports, in perpetuity, a post-doctoral research associate to oversee and digitise the Sarks Eye Tissue Collection.

The collection was compiled over more than 40 years by the Sarks themselves, both of whom are ophthalmologists. It includes more than 400 human eyes, each with clinical information gathered by the Sarks during the life of the donor. No other archive of this size and completeness exists in the world.  

The collection began in the 1960s, when Dr Shirley Sarks worked in a hospital where many older, homeless men were long-term patients. She and her husband were able to photograph the progress of the macular degeneration over years. Patients sometimes donated their eyes after death to an eye bank to be used for research and corneal grafting. Some of this tissue came back to the Sarks and it’s still part of the collection.

By donating the tissue collection to the Save Sight Institute and making a gift so the collection is maintained and made more accessible to researchers, the Sarks are creating the opportunity to better understand a challenging condition that will affect more and more people. Their gift is the very definition of foresight.