All eyes on new lab

26 August 2011

Part of the Save Sight Institute research team examining a retina at the microscope.
Part of the Save Sight Institute research team examining a retina at the microscope.

Re-programming the eye's cells and finding neurological or stem cell solutions to vision loss and blindness will be the focus of a new laboratory opening today at the Save Sight Institute.

Known as the Sydney Medical School Foundation Billson Research Laboratory, the lab will combine visual neuroscience and regenerative medicine in an effort to shed light on the causes of, and solutions to, visual impairment.

University of Sydney's Professor Paul Martin, who leads the Visual Neuroscience Research Group, says our vision is our most important sense and diseases, which cause visual loss and blindness, are terribly debilitating.

Martin's group will investigate the normal structure and function of the visual system, by measuring the connections between nerve cells in the retina and by studying the activity of single neurons in the retina and early stages of the visual pathway.

"Our chief interest is how colour, form, and motion in the visual world are processed in the retina and sent as distinct streams of information to the brain," he explains.

"We know these processes require precise connections between nerve cells in the retina, and diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration can disrupt these connections. But the accurate wiring diagram of the retina is still not known. We need an accurate diagram to guide us when we want to make repairs."

The new laboratories will also incorporate a physical containment level 2 (PC2) lab for stem cell and regenerative research. Professor Mark Gillies and his group will use this lab to develop methods to re-program the eye's own cells to expand and replace areas of damage in blinding disease.

"The combination of basic science and clinically oriented laboratories under one roof will give an ideal environment to make rapid progress on understanding eye disease and developing new treatments," describes Professor Gillies.

The new labs will provide a hub for research excellence in basic and clinical vision science for years to come, says Professor Peter McCluskey, director of the Save Sight Institute.

Around 300,000 Australians are blind or vision impaired according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, with experts predicting the figure is set to increase to over 400,000 by 2021 as the 'baby boomers' generation reach retirement age.

The NSW Governor and University of Sydney Chancellor Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir will officially open the laboratories.

The new laboratory has been named after Save Sight Institute founder and director, Professor Frank Billson, who worked in Australia and developing countries, such as Cambodia and Bangladesh, to save the sight of thousands of newborns and children.

The Save Sight Institute is a not-for-profit organisation working with government and the community to prevent visual impairment and loss.

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