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RCOphth/Fight for Sight John Lee Primer Fellowship: Understanding the cause of irreversible blindness in East Africa

9 April 2019

Research into a common eye condition in East Africa which causes irreversible vision loss is receiving vital funding from the eye research charity Fight for Sight, in partnership with The Royal College of Ophthalmologists (RCOphth).

Researchers aim to develop effective treatments for a condition known as Tanzanian Endemic Optic Neuropathy (TEON) based on the results from this study. Forty thousand people between the ages of 10-39 years old are affected by the condition in East Africa.

In this condition damage to the powerhouse of the cell, the mitochondria, eventually leads to death of the optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain.

Researchers believe that a combination of reduced sunlight exposure and poor dietary habits in people who are genetically susceptible, contributes to damage in the mitochondria, resulting in the condition. This study will provide evidence to confirm this theory.

Thirty recently diagnosed TEON patients will be compared to healthy controls. Lifestyle factors such as exposure to sunlight, dietary details and family history will be compared in conjunction with genetics, vitamin D assessments and eye examinations.

Dr Neil Ebenezer, Director of Research, Policy and Innovation at Fight for Sight, said: “This study is vital to help preserve the sight of the young East African population. It’s imperative that investigative research is preformed to understand the cause of this condition, which is currently unknown. By awarding Dr Burgess a Primer Fellowship award it will ensure that the genetic and environmental causes are determined. The knowledge gained will be applied to the development of therapies for patients.”

Dr Frederick Burgess, said: “I’m grateful to have been awarded the Fight for Sight/ RCOphth John Lee Primer Fellowship award which will enable me to tackle a condition which causes irreversible visual impairment resulting in significant disability, with educational and economic implications. Ultimately we hope that this work will lead to an effective intervention to prevent this significant cause of visual impairment in young adults.”

Professor Jugnoo Rahi, Chair of the RCOphth Academic Committee, commented: “A need was identified for awards that allow trainee ophthalmologists a period of funding to develop their research ideas, collect pilot data, and work towards competitive funding applications for subsequent doctoral research. The RCOphth are delighted that this joint award makes this possible. We warmly congratulate Dr Burgess and look forward to hearing of the outcomes of his work. I would encourage all ophthalmologists interested in pursuing research training to apply for support in the next round of the John Lee Primer Fellowship.”

The knowledge gained from this research can be applied globally to increase the understanding about optic nerve disease and how the environment and genetic factors affect it.

The RCOphth/Fight for Sight/John Lee Primer Fellowship funding, awarded to Dr Frederick Burgess of Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion hospital, is intended to provide junior ophthalmologists with experience and exposure to equip them to develop further funding applications.