25th March 2020

Treatment of diseases of the back of the eye such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and diabetic eye disease is set to be improved with a €4m EU-funded project led by Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT).

The project, ORBITAL, will contribute to research which could lead to more widespread use of less invasive drug delivery methods such as eye drops, contact lenses and microneedle technologies, instead of the more traditional injections. 

By understanding what patients and clinicians need in practice, the project aims to train researchers to have the skills necessary to develop these patient-friendly drug delivery technologies and ultimately improve patient experiences and outcomes. 

Current treatments include injections, which can be unpleasant for patients, and the project has been lauded as a timely new approach to meet the challenges of these devastating eye diseases. 

Europe’s ageing population and obesity epidemic means that the numbers living with AMD and diabetic eye disease will continue to dramatically increase in the coming years. 

According to WIT researcher, Dr Laurence Fitzhenry, who heads up the project, “There is a clear need for efficient, safe, less-invasive and more patient-friendly strategies for the treatment of AMD and diabetic eye disease”. 

“These diseases represent a considerable and growing burden on patients and healthcare systems throughout the world. Given the statistics, there is a lack of researchers being trained with the necessary interdisciplinary skills needed to combat such increasing burdens.” 

He explains that engagement with patients, patient groups and clinicians throughout the entirety of the training programme will ensure that patient-oriented solutions are at the centre of all research activity. 

Dr Fitzhenry was recently awarded the Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska-Curie European Training Network award, worth €4m, for funding of the ORBITAL (Ocular Research By Integrated Training And Learning) European Training Network programme. This pan-European research project, which starts this September, will see academia, industry, clinicians, patient advocacy groups and hospitals working together to create patient-friendly solutions for blinding diseases and recruitment has started for 15 brilliant, early career researchers to work on the project. 

ORBITAL is made up of a consortium of 23 members from Europe, Canada and the US and will be led by researchers in Waterford. Also involved are University College Dublin, Queen’s University Belfast, the charity Fighting Blindness, and a Kilkenny-based consultant eye surgeon, Mr David Kent of The Vision Clinic. 

€1m of the €4m funding will come directly to WIT, and almost half in total will come to the island of Ireland. 

Fighting Blindness is Ireland’s only charity funding research towards the development of treatment and cures for sight loss. 

Dr Laura Brady, Head of Research at Fighting Blindness, says, “Fighting Blindness champions the need for meaningful involvement of patients in research. Often the only sight-saving treatment available for those living with AMD requires invasive and frequent injections into the back of the eye. Addressing this burden on both the individual and clinical community, ORBITAL holds the potential to develop technologies that are relevant, safe, cost-effective and patient-friendly. We welcome this opportunity to engage with early-stage scientists and ensure our next generation of leaders commence their research careers with the patients’ needs at the forefront of their minds.” 

Mr David Kent, consultant eye surgeon, welcomes the formation of the pan-European research group saying it is an exciting time for Irish vision research. “It is my firm belief that collaboration between laboratories is the key to genuine research breakthroughs rather than individual groups working in isolation.” 

“To give you an idea of the therapeutic challenge facing the vision research community, AMD in the eye is a form of neurodegeneration that is highly prevalent, hugely challenging and currently only around 10% of patients can be treated, and not all effectively. ORBITAL is a timely approach to meet the challenges of these ever increasing and devastating eye diseases,” he adds. 

This project will receive funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 813440 


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