Funding boost for pioneering eye genetics research

Thursday, 25 March 2021

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Medical research into eye genetics at Oxford Brookes University has received a funding pledge of £2 million from Baillie Gifford, an international investment business.

The gift supports the work of Professor Nicola Ragge who has spearheaded a national eye genetics service, leading world-leading research into eye development problems in children.

Specialising in cases where babies are born with missing eyes (anophthalmia), or very small eyes (microphthalmia), Professor Ragge leads a research team which is investigating the genetic codes of this complex organ.

Our research is moving forward fast and as we discover more about genetic networks of the eye we can diagnose problems quickly, giving families the right advice and support and potentially enabling treatments to start sooner. This can be life-changing for babies and their families.

Professor Nicola Ragge, Oxford Brookes University

These conditions are estimated to affect up to 1 in 3,500 people and account for around a quarter of childhood blindness worldwide.

Using advanced genetic tools, the researchers are developing an intricate understanding of the eye, looking at techniques to speed up the diagnosis of eye development problems and treatments for anomalies.

Research can bring life-changing outcomes

Professor Ragge, the Baillie Gifford Chair of Developmental Eye Genetics, worked as a consultant eye surgeon before moving into research and has worked with many families across the UK who have had babies born with anophthalmia, microphthalmia, or coloboma - a condition which affects the development of one or more layers in the eye, leading to a keyhole shaped iris, or a missing part of the retina.

Professor Ragge said: “There is so much that we are still to discover about the eye and its intricate genetic puzzle. Our research is moving forward fast and as we discover more about genetic networks of the eye we can diagnose problems quickly, giving families the right advice and support and potentially enabling treatments to start sooner. This can be life-changing for babies and their families.

“We are very grateful to Baillie Gifford for their support with this generous gift, which secures our future research and drives us further towards that goal.”

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Genetic diagnosis gives sense of relief and vital knowledge to families

Barry Stickings and his family, from Broadstairs in Kent, have been supported by Professor Ragge’s expertise since his son Toby was born with Bilateral Anophthalmia, a condition where a child is born without both eyes. Her research helped discover a faulty gene which had been passed down to Toby through the female line of his family.

Barry now runs a charity to connect families who have a child with this condition, and said: “Knowing the reason behind our son’s eye condition really helped us, it gave us answers. It is so important for families like us to have genetic testing available at the earliest opportunity so that they can make choices and access support. Professor Ragge’s work truly changes lives - her team is at the forefront of this research.”

Families help research team to learn more

Claire Croft and her family met Professor Ragge shortly after her son George was born with missing eyes. Professor Ragge gave the genetic diagnosis of bilateral anophthalmia and has continued to support the family. The family have been referred back to Prof Ragge’s team each time George had a health issue which needed investigating, so that the research team could determine whether or not a particular issue was linked to the genetic condition. This has helped the research team understand more about how the condition affects children as they grow.

“For us, it’s a two-way relationship. I feel a responsibility to keep Nicky informed about George’s health if it will help further the research and understanding of the condition,” says Claire.

“We are lucky that George is able to live a normal life but that may not be the case for others. For us the journey doesn’t stop there. If we are able to help people learn more, and give others the peace of mind that we’ve had by this knowledge, then that is the right thing to do.”

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Research has real-world impact on people’s lives

Nick Thomas, partner of Baillie Gifford & Co, said: “We have supported Professor Ragge and her team for several years now, as part of our programme of academic research sponsorship. It has been a pleasure to be involved with her ground-breaking, collaborative work and to learn from her talented group of colleagues. The progress they are making continues to inspire us.”

Professor Alistair Fitt, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University said, “This generous donation from Baillie Gifford is testament to the globally recognised research centre that Professor Ragge and her team have built at Oxford Brookes. It supports our researchers to make a real-world impact on the lives of children with genetic eye conditions - work that could be transformative for their futures, and for their families. I’m delighted that Baillie Gifford is continuing its collaboration with us.”

The gift builds on an existing relationship with Baillie Gifford, which has been supporting Professor Ragge’s research at Oxford Brookes University for the last seven years.