Dotted around England are 20 research hubs that have the task of taking light bulb moments and translating them into scientific advances that will improve the daily lives of patients.
Each Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) that is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is tasked with shedding new light on different specialties, from adult mental health in Oxford to ageing in Newcastle.
The only institution where eye health is the sole focus is London’s Biomedical Research Centre at Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and UCL Institute of Ophthalmology.
Director, Professor Sir Peng Tee Khaw (pictured), told OT that the centre gives hope to those with sight loss conditions.
“Our centre brings together many clinician scientists and laboratory scientists specialising in different areas, and we share the same ambition of making a difference to patients,” he shared.
The centre will receive £19 million in funding from the NIHR between April 2017 and March 2022.
A partnership between BRC, the University of Auckland and Ulster University has seen the development of The Moorfields Acuity Test.
Professor Khaw explained that the test uses vanishing figures or letters rather than conventional black-on-white letters to test acuity.
“Results from the new test have been positive and there is now scope to produce a computerised version that can be distributed widely,” he said.
“We are hoping that this new test will transform optometry by providing patients with more accurate and measurable test results,” Professor Khaw added.
Last year research supported by the BRC found that use of the drug aflibercept could reduce the need for laser treatment among patients with diabetic eye disease.
The results of the CLARITY study show that aflibercept can benefit patients with early proliferative diabetic retinopathy.
The BRC also supports the development of precision medicine. The first patient to receive gene therapy for a retinal condition resulted from work at the centre on Leber’s congenital amaurosis.
“This has opened the door to the possibility of running gene therapy trials for other rare eye conditions,” Professor Khaw observed.
BRC has demonstrated that inherited eye diseases are the most common cause of blindness certification in the UK’s working age population.
Patients from the centre represent one in 20 rare disease patients recruited to the Genomics England genotyping project.
Professor Khaw highlighted that the centre’s involvement in the project means patients will have the chance to benefit from discoveries and novel treatments as they become available.
"I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to ensure that our centre facilitates specialists in all domains, including optometrists, to bring about positive change for patients"
He observed that the resources and infrastructure of the BRC create “unparalleled platforms” to help speed up the transition of novel approaches from the laboratory into clinical safety trials.
“This transition has for a long time been a bottleneck in the system,” he shared. Professor Khaw highlighted the rewarding nature of his work at the BRC, adding that his work as a clinician scientist specialising in glaucoma gives him a unique perspective on his role as director.
“This gives me huge insight into what patients really want and spurs me on to find new approaches in the laboratory that can be translated into clinical and surgical solutions,” he emphasised.
“I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to ensure that our centre facilitates specialists in all domains, including optometrists, to bring about positive change for patients,” Professor Khaw added.
Following a national competition, the BRC was selected as one of the NIHR Bioresource Centres for Translational Medicine in Rare and Common Diseases which launched in January 2018.
“This will give a further opportunity to patients, who are interested in providing samples for research, to register their interest and to be contacted should there be specific research studies in the future in which they might participate,” Professor Khaw elaborated.
The patient voice
The BRC’s patient and public involvement programme is a key part of the research that is delivered through the centre, he observed.
Patients have the opportunity to influence research undertaken on the site – from the initial questions to the way the study is conducted and the communication of the results.
Professor Khaw highlighted that last year, Moorfields launched a new strategy with the focus of “working together to discover, develop and deliver the best eye care.”
“This puts research very much at the core of the hospital’s work and chimes well with the ambitions of our BRC,” he said.
At the forefront
Professor Sir Peng Tee Khaw’s research group focuses on the surgical and medical treatment of the refractory glaucomas, particularly paediatric glaucoma.
They developed the internationally-adopted Moorfields Safer Surgery System dramatically reducing bleb-related complications.
As well as creating new surgical techniques and treatments to prevent scarring and encourage regeneration of tissues after ocular surgery and disease, the group are developing drug delivery systems, stem cell therapies and new single application anti-scarring treatments.
Professor Khaw was the first UK President of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology.
He was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for 2013 for services to ophthalmology, becoming one of two ophthalmologists to receive the honour in the last century.
Image credit: Will Amlot