Finding high-risk patients
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a common cause of vision loss in older Australians. It affects 1 in 7 people aged over 50 years. AMD progresses slowly. Over time it can develop into ‘dry’ (atrophic) or ‘wet’ (neovascular) disease.
Patients with dry AMD experience slow vision loss. But patients with wet AMD experience rapid vision loss. For this reason, they are at higher risk. An injection can reduce their rapid vison loss, but it needs to be provided at the right time to be effective.
Associate Professor Lauren Ayton, University of Melbourne, and other researchers used retinal imaging technology to discover new AMD biomarkers. These biomarkers indicate which patients have a high risk of vision loss.
This means optometrists can find and review high risk patients more often. They can give patients information about reducing the risk of vision loss and refer high risk patients to clinical trials.
But Lauren says this was not happening. ‘The new things we were discovering in the research space weren't getting through to patients where they needed to be.’
Online training for community eye clinics
Patients rely on their optometrists to give them information about managing their AMD disease. But Lauren’s research showed that Australian optometrists were not aware of:
- the latest AMD treatment guidelines from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO)
- the new AMD biomarkers and how to detect them using retinal imaging
- clinical trials for patients with AMD.
To change this situation, Lauren worked with her long-time mentor, ophthalmologist Professor Robyn Guymer. They developed a new online training program for optometrists.
‘It's a living course,’ Lauren explains. ‘We update it with new advances in the diagnosis and care of AMD. We’ve also set up a network of optometrists that is helping refer patients for the clinical trials.’
Community clinics helping researchers
The new practitioner network also helps researchers do clinical trials out in the community.
Lauren is involved in a clinical trial of a new gene therapy that may slow down dry AMD disease progression. The trial, led by Dr Tom Edwards from the Centre for Eye Research Australia, needs to find people who may benefit from this treatment.
Thanks to the new network, optometrists are helping. Optometrists collect saliva samples from patients in their community clinics. They send the samples off for genetic testing. The results of these tests help Lauren and her team find patients suitable for the gene therapy trial.
Interest from industry
Companies from the United States, Europe and Australia have bought Lauren’s online course.
‘Companies running clinical trials want their investigators to be up to date on the new biomarkers,’ Lauren explains. ‘Their commercial interest is very validating of our research.’
Lauren believes multi-disciplinary collaboration helped make their project a success.
‘I am passionate about multidisciplinary research,’ Lauren says. ‘Working together allows the professions to think differently. This drives new ideas and accelerates research through to patients.
‘The MRFF’s focus on research collaboration and implementation is an essential support for these advances.’
The MRFF supported Lauren’s research with $180,000.