George McNamara has spent the last ten years working in health policy. Today, he is the Director of Research, Policy and Innovation at Fight for Sight. During this year’s National Eye Health Week, he spoke to RNIB Connect Radio about the importance of research in preventing and treating sight loss, and shares some of the exciting new breakthroughs happening within the sector.
“Fight for Sight is the UK's leading eye research charity. We exist to fund pioneering research to prevent sight loss and treat eye diseases, ultimately ending sight loss as much as possible.
“Each year, Fight for Sight supports about three million pounds worth of research. That is done through our own funding, and also by working in partnership with other organisations in the sight loss sector, including the Royal Society of Medicine and the Royal College of Ophthalmology.
We also recognise that people living with sight loss are often living with other long-term conditions at the same time, so we make sure we bring together the best brains across all conditions to look at how we can address these important factors going forward. One example of this being for the first time, we have a joint research call with Alzheimer's Research UK to look into sight loss and dementia.
At Fight for Sight, we have seen a step-change in the potential of pioneering breakthroughs we are funding. For example, Fight for Sight’s founder discovered that excessive oxygen given to compensate for breathing problems associated with premature birth can cause blindness. This led to the careful control of oxygen delivery to premature infants and saved the sight of many babies. We also established the UK Corneal Transplant Service which has enabled over 52,000 corneal transplants to take place.
Looking forward, there is great optimism for the role of research in addressing sight loss. One initiative we helped fund uses smartphone technology. We’ve been involved in developing a smartphone app called Peek which is a portable eye examination kit. It enables increased accessibility and reduced cost to a range of eye tests. The Peek app could be used to give eye tests in care homes, or in people's homes who are socially isolated.
As well as research into new technology, what we’re also seeing an increasing interest in eye research relating to stem cell and gene therapy. This is the sort of new horizon research is going in. It is still very early days but actually there is great potential for pioneering breakthroughs that will benefit people in the future.
Tragically, eye research has been woefully underfunded for many, many years. When you compare funding that has been spent on other long-term conditions such as cancer, dementia or stroke, we find the difference unacceptable.
For too long it has been a neglected disease and as a whole sector, we need to change that. The opportunities like the ones I’ve outlined are too great not to invest in. We need to have initiatives backed by the government with the commitment of resource and skills and expertise to open up a new frontier of research.
We also want to send a clear message to leaders within our health services, social services and public health not to forget, or take for granted, the fact that everyone is having regular tests.
Not everyone understands the benefits of wearing sunglasses to protect their eyes, or the increased risks of sight loss through lifestyle choices such as smoking. These things are very simple messages and if we can get those messages across, hopefully it will then trigger behavioural change which enables more people to have eye tests and importantly, will allow us to follow up on the outcomes of that.