New hope for those facing blindness

MICHELLE Kornberg was diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease known as macular degeneration at the age of 30. But it took years for her to be able to talk about it.

''It was just too frightening to talk about it with anyone beyond my immediate family,'' she said. ''There just seemed to be no hope.''

Though picked up early after a routine optometrist appointment, Mrs Kornberg quickly learnt that the disease she had been diagnosed with had no cure. In fact, very little is known about the degenerative condition of the retina which causes a loss of central vision.

Responsible for almost half of all legal blindness in Australia, age-related macular degeneration affects one in seven people over the age of 50.

''I remember studying my two children's faces because I was aware that I could wake up any day and things would be fuzzy,'' she said.

But hope was restored on Monday with the launch of the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia. Based at East Melbourne's Centre for Eye Research Australia, the foundation's first project will be to try to establish the cause of age-related macular degeneration.

The project, which comes with $100,000 over two years, drew American researcher Kathryn Davidson back to Melbourne where she had completed her PhD at Monash University.

Working with colleagues, Dr Davidson's research will concentrate on what makes the eye cells deteriorate - a goal which will hopefully lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment.

''Because we don't know what happens early on [with the disease], we want to capture in the petri dish the early stages in development and the progression of the disease,'' Dr Davidson said.

To do this researchers will not only need to study a patient's diseased eye cells - but also turn their skin cells into eye cells. To do this they first need to program the skin cells to behave like stem cells, which have the ability to become any type of cell in the body. The researchers will coax them to become eye cells, to compare a patient's lab-generated eye cells with the diseased cells in their eye.

''We might then notice something earlier,'' Dr Davidson said. ''Something that happens before the cells in the retina die which could help with earlier diagnosis.''

For Mrs Kornberg the prospect is tantalising. ''It now means that there is hope,'' she said. ''Not just for me but for other people as well.''

The story New hope for those facing blindness first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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