Eyes on the prize: restoring sight research takes PM's award
Restoring vision to eyes whose surface has been damaged by trauma or disease is on the horizon thanks to world- leading research by Brisbane-based biomedical scientist, Dr Laura Bray who has been awarded the inaugural Prime Minister's Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Award.
The award provides Dr Bray, from QUT's IHBI and the Queensland Eye Institute, with $118,000 to further her research at the Leibniz Institute for Polymer Research in Dresden, Germany for two years.
She was chosen for the award as a "high-achieving Australian female student whose research will contribute to the advancement of women's leadership in Australia".
Dr Bray, who is passionate about women moving into biomedical engineering leadership roles, decided to research ways to improve the outcomes for patients with eye injuries when her brother damaged the surface of one eye after it was punctured by a nail on a building site.
"I am researching the use of fibroin, a protein found in silk fibres, to repair injuries to the surface of the eye," Dr Bray said.
"When eyes are damaged by foreign objects or workplace accidents such as chemical burns or by some congenital, immunological, or bacterial disease, the limbal stem cells required to repair the surface of the cornea can become deficient.
"I am researching ways to engineer the silk materials to create a more natural environment in which limbal stem cells can be grown and then transplanted back to the eye to improve vision."
Dr Bray said limbal stem cells maintain and repair the cornea, the transparent front part of the eye, and these cells sit between the cornea and the sclera or white of the eye.
"A deficiency of these stem cells causes the conjunctival tissue, normally covering the white of the eye, to grow over the cornea's surface and bring blood vessels across which cause opaqueness and loss of sight. It can also be a very painful condition," she said.
"By putting growth factors into the silk materials we hope to create a more natural microenvironment that could help the stem cells we put back into the patient regenerate the cornea and reduce scarring as the silk degrades away."
Dr Bray said that her laboratory at IHBI was possibly the only one in the world that was growing primary human limbal stem cells on silk fibroin materials.
"Combining limbal stem cells, growth factors and fibroin with techniques used at the Leibniz Institute for Polymer Research opens some exciting opportunities and could very well lead to improved therapies for repairing the surface of the eye.
"They are looking forward to my going there also so that we can share our knowledge," she said.
"This research could assist my brother to regain some of his vision in his injured eye in the future, along with other patients like him, who cannot benefit from the current methods of treatment in the clinic."
Dr Bray holds a science degree from the University of the Sunshine Coast.
QUT - Niki Widdowson, 07 3138 2999 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Queensland Eye Institute - Kate Lowe, 0410 410 425, email@example.com