Tell us about your journey into ophthalmology?
I did a very broad biology degree including some time studying bird behaviour. However, after finishing my degree I worked at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, which has a strong focus on genetics. The team I worked with specialised in neural stem cell differentiation. Neural stem cells are really interesting because they can become lots of other cells that are found in the nervous system – cells like neurons and glial cells, these are cells found in the brain. The eye is, of course, an extension of the brain, so when I saw a PhD advertised at UCL Institute of Ophthalmology in Dr Mariya Moosajee's lab looking at growing early eye cups derived from stem cells I knew had to apply! Eye cups are the early stage of eye development as it grows out from the brain and forms the structure of an eye. My PhD combines many of the things that had sparked my interest while working at Cambridge; genetics, stem cells and neural differentiation.
What is your current research?
My project is aiming to understand the genetics of microphthalmia. In microphthalmia there is a problem with how the eye develops during pregnancy and one or both eye balls of the baby are abnormally small. We are trying to better understand this eye development and what is going wrong in this condition.
We know that there are many different genes that can lead to microphthalmia - at least 100. What we don’t know, is what they all do. The plan for this project is to use stem cells to model eye development in order to study the genetic causes more closely.
I grow early eye cups using cells from patients with a known genetic cause, and compare it to healthy eye development. Hopefully we’ll be able to discover what is going wrong during the early development which we hope, in time, could shape preventions, treatments and cures.
How has your work been supported by the NIHR?
The NIHR has run a number of courses and workshops that have been useful. The NIHR Moorfields BRC team has also supported my lab in carrying out public engagement activities, helping our research to reach a wider audience.
What do you think the future holds for ophthalmology?
This is a tough question! In my area of genetics there are lots of really exciting gene therapies. These therapies are exciting as they can reintroduce a working gene into a person who has a broken copy of a gene, enabling in the case of vision, some sight to return to patients.
I also think that we are moving in the direction of more personalised medicines - we can now take a person’s skin cells and grow an eye cup or their own retina (light-sensing layer at the back of the eye) from them, in the future this could be used as a drug screen and used to determine what drugs will work best for that patient’s genes.