CRISPR-Cas editing, next-generation gene sequencing and the world’s only DNA bank of glaucoma patients are being deployed in a Flinders University project designed to prevent the world’s leading cause of irreversible blindness.
 
With the help of a $9.46 million Federal Government investment, the high-tech genetic research into a disease that affects about 300,000 Australians could save the eyesight of millions worldwide.
 
Minister for Aged Care and Minister for Indigenous Health Ken Wyatt said glaucoma shows no symptoms or warning signs in the early stages, but genomics can arrest the damage of the high-heritable condition.
 
“Testing is vital and although there is no cure with treatment glaucoma can be controlled and further loss of sight either prevented or slowed,” Wyatt said.
 
The grant to Flinders University’s College of Medicine and Public Health will be used to research the use of personalised treatments for a disease with an estimated annual cost to the Australian economy of over $144 million. Up to 80 million people are predicted to suffer from the condition globally by 2020.
 
“Research based on knowledge of the genes that lead to glaucoma blindness will have important real-world impacts in reducing the worldwide suffering caused by this common condition,” the Minister said.

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases in which the optic nerve at the back of the eye is slowly destroyed, generally through increasing pressure caused by a build-up of fluid.
 
Led by Professor of Ophthalmology Jamie Craig, the five-year program aims to understand the advanced genetics of primary open angle glaucoma and convert discoveries into new clinical practices, including the use of revolutionary genome-editing technology.
 
“This work will directly and indirectly lead to a change in clinical practice, which will result in improved outcomes for patients with or at risk of developing this blinding condition,” Professor Craig said.
 
About 1500 patients are currently being monitored as part of the research.
 
“This will ensure that high-risk individuals can access treatment early, while those at low risk can be spared unnecessary treatment and seen less often by vision experts.”
 
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are three times more likely to suffer blindness than other Australians. Around 90 per cent of vision loss, including from glaucoma, is preventable or treatable, yet 35 per cent of Indigenous Australians never have an eye exam.
 
The project is being conducted in collaboration with chief investigators Professor David Mackey from the University of Western Australia, Associate Professor Stewart Macgregor from the Council of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research and Associate Professor Alex Hewitt from the University of Tasmania.
 
Funding for the grant has been provided through the National Health and Medical Research Council, which has provided $29.8 million to glaucoma research since 2007.