2020 VISION – Researching individual differences in Diabetic Eye Disease in Tasmanians

Friday, 15 January 2021 - 2:47pm

Diabetic eye disease is a major cause of vision loss, affecting around 40% of those living with diabetes and over 16,000 Tasmanians altogether.

Blindness is one of the most feared effects of diabetes and, although it is not fatal, lost vision contributes enormously to a reduction in quality of life for diabetes patients. The lack of mobility that poor vision brings can also have a knock-on effect upon efforts to reduce weight and prevent heart disease. Unfortunately, these are the primary cause of death for people with diabetes.

But there is good news! The treatment of diabetic eye disease has been revolutionised in recent years by the use of anti-VEGF drugs that are injected directly into the eye. In many patients, these treatments can restore lost vision or prevent deterioration of vision.

However, the negative aspect is that these treatments are expensive and invasive and, unfortunately, 50-60% of patients do not benefit. Researchers do not yet know why some patients don’t gain from treatment, or how they differ from those who do. This is where our vital study comes in!

This important 2020 Project Grant aims to identify clinical and genetic factors that can predict which patients will benefit from anti- VEGF treatment. This will help to identify the most appropriate treatment for each patient, so that anti-VEGF injections are only used if they are likely to work. For patients who are unlikely to respond, alternative treatments can be recommended earlier so that further vision loss can be prevented.

The highly skilled Tasmanian research team involved in this study includes scientists and clinicians with expertise in ophthalmology, genetics, bioinformatics and statistics.

A key member of the local team is PhD student Rajya Laxmi Gurung, a qualified ophthalmologist who has been recruiting participants at the RHH, and also from Hobart Eye Surgeons, and the Launceston Eye Institute. She has been collecting samples for DNA analysis and will continue to analyse the data under the supervision of Dr Bennet McComish, Prof Kathryn Burdon and Prof Nitin Verma.

“The project specifically involves studying genetic aspects of this potentially blinding disease, something which hasn’t been explored before. Over the past year or so I have been actively recruiting patients and collecting blood samples from different clinics in Hobart and Launceston, and the response so far has been fantastic. It’s pretty amazing to see patients so keen to participate in our study, just so that it can help someone else in the future.

“I guess this sense of giving and helping the community is what keeps me and so many others going during what has been a challenging year. We are in our final stages of patient recruitment and aim to start analysing the data soon. Ultimately, we hope that findings from our study will be a step toward prevention of diabetic blindness, while also finding better treatment options in the future,” she said.

Despite some setbacks earlier in the year when clinics were shut down due to COVID-19, there has been great progress to date with preparation well underway to carry out DNA genotyping work so that the team can identify genetic differences between patients who respond to treatment and those who don’t.

Chief Investigator for this research study, Dr McComish, said this project had enabled him to closely study diabetic retinopathy, a very common eye complication related to diabetes.

We think you’ll join us in being excited about another example of cutting-edge research happening right here at our doorstep with involvement of many locals, all aimed to benefit Tasmanians in years to come.


Anti-VEGF treatments use a group of medicines that reduce new blood vessel growth (neovascularisation) or oedema (swelling). These medicines can be used to treat a number of eye conditions that cause complications under the macular area of the retina, at the back of the eyes, so the overall impact of this treatment on a range of conditions is considerable.

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