The Observatory

Discovering treatments to beat blindness

“We are just a matter of years away now from developing life-changing therapies and cures for vision loss and many inherited blinding diseases,” Dr Alex Hewitt says. “This will be game-changing for millions of people around the world.”

Eye Health Hero Dr Alex Hewitt

Over the last few years, Dr Hewitt with Dr Alice Pébay and their teams at the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) have been fine-tuning technology that enables them to take an adult cell – such as a skin cell – turn it into a stem cell, and then create new human tissue, such as the nerve or retinal tissues at the back of the eye. This means that they are now able to study the cells at the back of an eye without actually needing to take a sample directly from the eye.

“This amazing technology is just the beginning of a new era in treating eye disease,” Dr Hewitt says. “It means that we can compare the cells at the back of people’s eyes who have a blinding disease, see what’s going on, and then hopefully identify therapeutic targets.

“This will allow us to find new treatments for many eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma, and even correct the mutations in the genes that cause many different inherited eye conditions.”

Dr Hewitt and his team are fast-tracking their research with the acquisition of another cutting-edge technology that semi-automates the process of keeping millions of stem cells alive at once. Previously, keeping these cells alive was a very laborious process, making it almost impossible to study many cells at the same time.

“This latest technology will revolutionise the way in which we will be able to carry out our research,” he says. “By having the ability to study the cells from many different people at once, we will be able to understand what is causing these conditions, and this will give us the knowledge to develop therapies and cures.”

When it comes to medical research, the study of eye disease can often lose out to life-threatening diseases. But Dr Hewitt is quick to point out the inordinate good that can come from finding cures for blindness.

“By stopping people from losing their vision, we are preserving their quality of life.” This aspect of vision loss and blindness is often overlooked and misunderstood, but it can mean the difference between a full life or a life of poverty and dependence.

“What we are learning has shed dramatic insight into these conditions and our discoveries may also have important applications for other diseases too. The tools for biological discovery have never been sharper, and it is now possible to answer almost any question in medical research.”

In the meantime, Dr Hewitt is just keen to get on with his research so that he can start developing the therapies and cures for blindness that have the potential to profoundly impact the lives of millions globally.

“Australia is already a leader in medical breakthroughs, and we are hoping to be the next. It really is an amazing time to be working in eye health.”

  • Download Dr Hewitt’s story in PDF here.
  • Photo credit: Les O’Rourke.