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How to save our sight

If you have two groups of scientists, each promising to cure a form of blindness, but only one pot of money, what would you do?

03 Nov 2016 by Olivia Wannan

As a big fan of the Science Museum’s monthly late-night openings, last week’s offering – with the theme of ‘contagion’ – really raised the bar.

My friends and I made origami versions of the Zika virus and saw the genetically modified mosquitoes that may eradicate malaria, but one of the most interesting exhibits of the night for me was the outbreak centre run by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

There, you were given the basics of how health organisations respond to a pandemic like Ebola.

The scenario that really struck me was in deciding how to spend money – is it best to spend tens of thousands on research towards a vaccine that has a 20% chance of success but could save many more lives, or in a more dependable education campaign that would lower infection rates?

For our most recent edition, we posed this same type of scenario to a number of ocular experts, asking them how they would allocate a fictional £1bn fund if it were up to only them.

I deliberately made the pot big enough to allow almost any project, even funding a new drug through clinical trials. My own allocation ideas leant in this direction.

With the global warnings of the growing problem of antibiotic resistance and the tens of millions at risk of blindness from trachoma, I would likely invest “my £1bn” in developing a new antibiotic – or a radical new alternative.

It is easy for me to play a thought experiment, of course, as I don’t have to bear the responsibility if my investment fails to pay off.

But organisations like the Moorfields Eye Hospital and University College London Biomedical Research Centre – recently allocated £19m over five years by the National Institute for Health Research – do have to step up and make these decisions, on behalf of everyone who already has, or will develop, eye disease.

Even with the best scientists and all the preparation in the world, clinical trials for cutting-edge technologies can have disappointing results.

But, similar to a patient trying out contact lenses, it is important to remember that even a negative outcome is an opportunity to learn – leaving us a step closer to the right answer that does transform things for the better.

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