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Columns
Renée Watson runs her own Oxford based science consultancy WATS.ON, where she boasts the delicious title of ‘Head of Explosions’.

The Big Bang

Renée Watson

 

It really isn’t hard to see why eyes have consumed our fascination throughout human history.

 

Firstly, of all our organs they are the most visible. Add their transparency, colour and shape and they appear almost magical (the lacy iris looks almost like an entire galaxy has been captured in each glassy orb). Yet behind the surface, a huge array of different cells is working at lightning speed to capture information from the world around us and send it to our brain. It happens so fast and so automatically that most of us rarely stop to think about how much we rely on sight.

 

About 360,000 people are currently registered blind in the UK, not to mention the millions of people in developing countries who are blind and have no access to treatment of even the most basic kind. Good old June Brown hit the news this month, not because of the latest EastEnders crisis, but because June suffers from Age-Related Macular Degeneration (or AMD). AMD is an incredibly common form of progressive blindness that affects people, yes you guessed it, as they age. The macula is right at the centre of the retina - it’s what helps us read and appreciate the finer details of life. As we age, the cells in the macula stop working properly creating black spots in our vision leading to partial or complete blindness.

 

Pressure to find new treatments for eye disease is high, and rather excitingly, some of the biggest breakthroughs have happened right here in Oxford.

 

Professor Robert MacLaren is using gene and stem cell therapies to treat a range of retinal diseases. Prof MacLaren’s group recently published the results of a clinical trial where they restored vision in patients who were going blind because they were missing a gene called CHM. By injecting a gene therapy containing the CHM gene they have seen that the eye cells in patients took up the replacement gene and caused significant improvement in their sight.

 

Prof MacLaren’s group is also working on an incredible device called an Electronic Retina that is essentially a computer chip containing light sensitive diodes (a diode is a double-ended piece of material that conducts electricity).

 

The diodes are connected to electrodes that send electrical impulses to the nerves in the retina. This device mimics the natural processing of information by the retinal cells. The Electronic Retina is transplanted surgically into the eye and so far has been extremely successful in the small number of patients treated.

 

In similar bionic human style, June Brown's AMD was successfully treated using a new surgical technique that Bobby Qureshi of the London Eye Hospital developed thanks to NASA. After seeing NASA's trick for fixing the Hubble Space Telescope, Bobby copied the technique, making very small cuts in the lens of the eye so that light can be redirected to a healthy part of the macula.

 

It’s still early days for these treatments and although they do look promising, next time you’re standing in front of a mirror, do me a favour and forget about examining your face for new wrinkles. Instead, take a moment to marvel at the intricate, sophisticated machines that are your eyes. There, it is impossible not to find true beauty.

 

 

- Renée Watson