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Making eye cells from skin cells to understand blindness

February 18, 2013

Making eye cells from skin cells to understand blindness Dr Kathryn Davidson and Dr Graeme Blackman in the laboratory
Melbourne researchers are turning skin cells into eye cells to help them understand an incurable form of blindness that affects one in seven older Australians: age-related macular degeneration.
The new initiative was announced today at the launch of the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia, a new charity that is supporting stem cell research, and informing the community of the potential opportunities, and the present dangers of stem cell medicine.

The Foundation’s first investment has brought Dr Kathryn Davidson, a young American stem cell expert, back to Melbourne and the Centre for Eye Research Australia. She hopes to help solve the mystery of what causes age-related macular degeneration, a common, incurable and poorly understood cause of blindness that costs the Australian economy $5.15 billion per year.

“We don't know for certain what's happening in the eye to cause macular degeneration, says Dr Davidson. “We know that certain retinal cells die, and so do the other cells that depend on them, but we need to know how and why. Then we can start to think about early diagnosis and treatment.

“We will take skin cells from the patient, turn them into stem cells and then into new retinal cells. Then we can compare these eye cells with damaged eye cells from the same patients and see what is happening, she says.

Family therapist and patient advocate Michelle Kornberg knows the fear that comes with deteriorating vision and a diagnosis of macular degeneration. “I was basically told ‘you've got macular degeneration; you have a risk of losing your eye sight; there's nothing we can do,’ she said. “I started to study my kids, to remember what they looked like.

Michelle has participated in a laser treatment trial that has arrested the progress of macular degeneration, but may face vision loss in the future. “The thought of going blind is scary; not just losing your eye sight but the consequences of it too, like not being able to drive and the loss of some independence.

The Stem Cell Foundation has been established to support research efforts and provide much-needed public information about stem cell therapies. Kathryn is the Foundation’s first research grant recipient.

“Stem cell medicine holds great potential but there are also real risks, says Foundation Chairman Dr Graeme Blackman.

“Many people are considering expensive and unproven stem cell therapies offered overseas without realising the risks of developing complications and even tumours, says Dr Blackman. “The Foundation will use the funds it raises to support researchers like Kathryn and also to provide the information patients need to make better treatment choices. A resource kit for patients is available on the Foundation's website.

“Australia has a remarkable record of leadership in stem cell science, he says. “We want to help Australian scientists turn the potential of stem cell medicine into reality.
Image created by vision impaired researcher and artist Erica Tandori. More details in the background.

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The effects of macular degeneration, portrayed by researcher and artist Erica Tandori

About age-related macular degeneration
Age-related macular degeneration (macular degeneration) is Australia's most common cause of blindness. It involves damage to the macular region of the retina, which is involved in our most detailed central vision. Symptoms of macular degeneration may include a decline in the ability to see objects clearly, dark or empty spaces in the central field of vision and distorted vision.

In Australia, macular degeneration contributes to 50 per cent of all blindness with an estimated one in seven Australians over the age of 50 affected by macular degeneration.

The cause of macular degeneration is unclear. Genetic predisposition and lifestyle choices—nature and nurture—can contribute to macular degeneration. Those most at risk of developing the condition are people with a family history of macular degeneration, people over the age of 75 and smokers.

There are two types of advanced macular degeneration: wet and dry. Wet macular degeneration is less common, but more severe, with some patients experiencing vision loss virtually overnight. However, it can be treated to some degree. Dry macular degeneration is more common and its associated vision loss is more gradual. Dry macular degeneration is currently untreatable.

Macular degeneration is currently incurable, but the progression of the condition can be slowed or even stopped. Michelle Kornberg’s early macular degeneration diagnosis enabled her to participate in a laser treatment trial that halted her loss of vision before it became debilitating.

About Dr Kathryn Davidson and her research
Dr Kathryn Davidson is a stem cell scientist, with an interest in how stem cells communicate and how this influences the way they behave and specialise. American-born, she married an Australian and completed her PhD in Melbourne, spending five years in Professor Martin Pera's stem cell research group at Monash University and the Australian Stem Cell Centre.

Following several years of postdoctoral research at the University of Washington, she is returning to Australia to work in the Neuroregeneration Unit at CERA under the leadership of Dr Alice Pébay.

“I am new to the field of eye research, says Kathryn. “I wanted to work with a team focused on clinical or translational research. For me, that is important—to move the research in a direction where it may make a difference for a patient. CERA was a perfect fit. Australia is my adopted home. It's great to be part of something that's a real strength in Australia.

Kathryn explains that cell communication or ‘signalling’ tells stem cells how to behave — to divide, to move or even to die.
“It’s very context specific, says Kathryn. “For example, if we elevate one type of signalling in combination with certain drugs, melanoma cells die. But colon cells will respond by rapidly dividing, which could lead to a tumour. This is why it is important to study signalling. Through this research, we want to understand the signals that regulate normal and diseased eye cells. Any new insight gained is important at this stage.