Endless possibilities in eye research

Head of research at Fight for Sight, Dr Rubina Ahmed (pictured), tells OT  about its research study into the economic and personal impact of sight loss and the difference additional funding could make

Dr Rubina Ahmed

How much more funding does eye research require?

Even just a 1% increase in eye research funding would have a huge impact on tackling the leading causes of blindness. The UK currently spends about £35m on eye research annually – that is across both Government and charitable funding. Doubling this investment would allow a greater number of promising early-stage projects being further developed and taken into clinical trials – meaning that we can get treatments produced more quickly, transforming thousands of lives in the process.

What is the potential impact of additional funding?

Sight loss will affect 20% of people at some point in their lives, yet only 1% of research funding currently goes into tackling sight loss. Many eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy mainly affect those over the age of 50. With an ageing population the prevalence of some of these conditions is set to double over the next two decades. As well as the personal impact on people affected by these conditions, the economic impact will also be huge. There are direct costs associated with the treatment and management of these diseases as well as the indirect cost to the economy through issues such as inability to work. We need to invest in new treatments and interventions now in order to make sure we are able to manage these conditions effectively in the future.

Research has already given us many of the answers and there are so many new and exciting technologies emerging that could have a transformational effect on these conditions. For example, the first gene therapy licensed for an inherited eye condition. Indeed, we funded early-stage research that has led to clinical trials for potential new treatments for choroideremia, Stargardt disease and leber congenital amaurosis. There is also a lot of excitement in stem cell research to potentially restore sight that has already been lost – something that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago. We have seen artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning techniques come to the fore in recent years, which could have a massive impact on how we detect and diagnose eye disease. More funding would mean more of these sorts of breakthroughs and allow promising new treatments to reach people faster.

It’s an exciting time in eye research so the possibilities are endless, but currently, we are only able to fund a small proportion of the excellent research applications that come in – this needs to change as we are missing opportunities.

Research has already given us many of the answers and there are so many new and exciting technologies emerging


What areas will Fight for Sight focus on in its recently announced research study?

Our research study will show the economic and personal impact of sight loss. Blindness can have a huge impact on people’s mental health and ability to work, increasing costs on health systems and infrastructure. Hundreds of people with sight loss will be interviewed for the study and the research will include a health economic analysis, statistics and a literature review to understand the cost to the economy of sight loss and blindness and how this is projected to increase.

Sight loss costs the UK over £28bn each year, yet only 1% of funding for public services is spent on eye research. This equates to just £20 for each person living with sight loss.

Despite the evidence, the scale of this growing health challenge is not being taken seriously. We need the input of those affected by sight loss to demonstrate its impact and to secure more funding for pioneering eye research.

How does Fight for Sight intend to use the findings of the study?

Once we have gathered our findings we will share them across the sector and develop a plan that will use the data to target decision makers, making the case for sight loss and blindness and why we need more research investment. It is going to take a whole range of institutions and funding vehicles to address this funding gap.

For example, the evidence we collate will help to demonstrate why it is economically in the Government’s interest to focus on solutions that could prevent or cure eye diseases, as well as investing in care and support for people once they have developed serious sight loss. This could also transform the lives of those people affected and is in society’s interest to make sure we address this growing issue.