Amanda is a researcher at UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, currently working with The London Project to Cure Blindness. The project is a collaboration between Professor Pete Coffey from UCL and Professor Lyndon da Cruz a retinal Surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. It aims to bring stem cell therapy for retinal diseases, especially for Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), to the clinic as rapidly as possible.
What was your journey to ophthalmology?
"I did a PhD in Manchester in Neuroscience, to study light on circadian rhythms. I was looking at winter versus summer day-lengths in relation to genes that control the biological clock. I then moved to UCL Department of Anatomy where I worked with zebra fish. My work used an embryonic cell line that was light responsive, I was using them to see how light controls circadian rhythms in single cells. I decided to try to look at this in human cells, so I wrote an email to Anthony Vugler and Pete Coffey who I thought may be able to help. We started talking and I moved over to the IOO.
Once here in 2006, I began looking at retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells and how, in some animals, a whole eye could be regenerated from RPE cells. I love working with RPE cells, I find them fascinating and it’s great that they have the potential to be pushed into becoming photoreceptor cells, but also have a fundamental role of keeping the retina healthy in humans.
I was only here for a year and Pete Coffey started The London Project to Cure Blindness which I wanted to be involved in. So, I’ve been working with him on that since it began with excellent results."
Can you tell us about your current research?
"I’m working on induced pluripotent stem cells from patients. I take a skin biopsy and grow the cells in a dish. I reprogram the skin cells into stem cells by adding DNA, from these cells we can then make any cell in the body, including eye cells. I am specifically working on a group of diseases called bestrophinopathies as I want to find out what’s going wrong in these conditions. Using a patient’s own stem cells lets us grow RPE cells in a dish that contain the patient’s mutation, this means we can find out what is causing the disease in a dish. We can also use these cells to test new therapies, long before they go into an actual patient. I’m currently testing CRISPR gene editing which is a bit like enzyme scissors. I am trying to cut out the dominant gene and leave the healthy copy alone. We hope that we will be able to use these techniques as treatments in the future."
Can you tell us how you are supported by the NIHR Moorfields Biomedical Research Centre?
"I have had infrastructural and logistics support for patient days and for the UCL IOO symposium we ran last year."
What do you think the future holds for ophthalmology?
"I really believe that within The London Project, we will focus on producing more cells, including those that detect light, so that we can replace damaged light responsive cells and cure blindness in patients who have already lost sight. New molecular therapies, including gene editing will be the future treatment for some conditions.
The eye is at the forefront of research. It’s the most accessible organ in the body and is the window to many other organs and conditions."