2021 – a year of triumphs, challenges and change at the NIHR Moorfields BRC
As the year draws to a close, the team at the NIHR Moorfields Biomedical Research Centre reflect back on a year of extraordinary research, a return to in-person events, and a new BRC manager.
As we reach almost fifteen years of collaboration between the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), Moorfields Eye Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, we reflect with pride on our partnership with these two world-leaders in the field of vision research.
Aside from the groundbreaking bench-to-bedside research outcomes that continue to transform eye care, the dedication shown by our people continues to inspire – not only those who work tirelessly at both institutions, but also the many patients who work with them to make research better for everyone.
In July, we were delighted to welcome Dr Aadil Kazi as the new Moorfields BRC manager after saying farewell to Karen Bonstein, who had managed the team for the last 12 years. Aadil has a huge amount of research management experience, in particular from his most recent job at the NIHR Imperial BRC, where he was responsible for operational delivery and the performance of the BRC themes and core-supported infrastructure. Aadil’s start coincided with a welcome return to the office for our patient and public involvement and engagement (PPIE) and communication teams. After a year of cancelled in-person events, adapting to new remote-working conditions and the challenges of connecting digitally, we were once again able to meet patients, the public and each other face-to-face.
Despite the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and repeated lockdowns, it has been an exceptionally busy year for NIHR-supported research and publications. In January, a team of Moorfields BRC researchers, working with colleagues at Essex and Cambridge Universities, developed a simple, paper-based test kit that patients could receive in the post or print out at home to allow clinicians to test their eyesight remotely. As the pandemic continued, it was an innovation that an immediate impact on patients and NHS services.
February proved a particularly busy month, with a starring role on TV for a condition called Charles Bonnet syndrome, where sight loss leads to vivid hallucinations that can cause severe anxiety and distress. The ITV soap opera Coronation Street featured a character with optic neuritis that causes him to hallucinate, which causes him considerable anguish before being diagnosed with Charles Bonnet syndrome. The storyline coincided with the publication of research led by Professor Mariya Moosajee showing that social isolation resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic had worsened the effects of the syndrome for many patients at Moorfields.
In the same month, a major study supported by us and published by a team at the UCL Institute of Child Health laid bare the current state of visual disability in children in the UK. The study highlighted the disproportionate burden of visual disability faced by children from disadvantaged backgrounds and ethnic minorities, and the need for better planning to meet future demands on the health service and reduce inequality.
February also saw the publication of a landmark Lancet Commission on Global Eye Health, a report setting out the urgent need to do more to help the estimated 1.8 billion people around the world who will be living with untreated sight-loss by 2050. 90% of these cases are preventable or treatable, and the paper highlights how low- and middle-income countries can be assisted in order for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to be met. Five Moorfields BRC researchers contributed to the report, including its co-Chair, Prof. Matthew Bourton, alongside Professor Alastair Denniston, Sir Peng Tee Khaw, Pearse Keane and Richard Wormald.
At the end of March, a piece of NIHR-supported research hit the headlines around the world when a team led by Dr Anthony Khawaja discovered evidence that moderate drinking, especially of wine, appeared to offer some protection against cataracts – one of the commonest of all eye conditions. The study relied on the UK Biobank and EPIC-Norfolk patient studies, based on long-term data from hundreds thousands of participants. It generated huge media interest, proving that even when vision research does not involve a new cure or treatment, it can be directly relatable to a general audience.
In May, a study published in Nature Medicine reported the partial recovery of visual function in a blind patient after ‘optogenetic therapy’ using light-sensing proteins first found in algae. It marked the first such partial recovery for a patient with neurodegenerative retinitis pigmentosa, offering great promise for future treatment for the NHS.
A study published in The Lancet Digital Health in September showed how artificial intelligence could be used to detect and quantify geographic atrophy – a severe, irreversible form of age-related macular degeneration. Currently untreatable, the condition affects 5 million people globally, and this new technology should enable researchers to better understand the development of the condition and the effectiveness of new drugs to treat it, which are currently being trialled. The work was carried out at Moorfields Reading Centre, led by its Director, Konstantinos Balaskas, who was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s In Touch about the breakthrough – a first for an in-house team working within the NHS.
Our biggest media story of the year came in November with the announcement that Steve, a patient at Moorfields, had been fitted with the word’s first 3D-created and printed prosthetic eye. Led by Professor Mandeep Sagoo and supported by us and Moorfields Eye Charity, the development aims to speed up and simplify the process of creating an extremely realistic new eye. Steve’s story captured the public imagination: as well as featuring on ITV News at Ten, his moving story was picked up around the world – testament to the impact our research is having on the lives of real people.
Finally, in December, we announced the opening of a Moorfields pop-up diagnostic hub at a shopping centre in Brent Cross in North London. This cutting-edge space has been designed to trial a safe and highly efficient way of seeing patients closer to their homes, reducing NHS waiting lists, saving money and making life easier for patients, not just in eye care, but across the NHS, and for decades to come. Supported by the NIHR under the direction of Professor Paul Foster, the project is a unique collaboration between architects, healthcare researchers and operational experts from across Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and UCL.
Our work with the INSIGHT Health Data Research Hub for Eye Health continued in March with the launch of the second series of our Insights into INSIGHT podcast, presented by Dr Amit Patel, diversity, equity & inclusion consultant and proud custodian of guide dog Kika. Across three episodes, the podcast delved into the science of big data, how algorithms already affect our daily lives – especially for the visually impaired – and how we can avoid bias and ensure fairness for all in the increasingly dominant world of artificial intelligence.
In May, we announced the winners of the BRC ARVO 2021 Travel Awards for their posters at the annual ARVO conference: Philipp Mueller (of Moorfields) and Hend Ahmed (of UCL). The Award covered the cost of attending the virtual conference online.
In March, the BBC TV documentary ‘DNA Family Secrets’, presented by Stacey Dooley, featured the story of a young patient being looked after by Professor Mariya Moosajee, NIHR-supported researcher and Moorfields consultant, as he underwent genetic testing for a disorder that could be treated with gene therapy.
In June, the Gene.Vision website, launched last year with NIHR funding as a resource for people with rare genetic eye disorders, added a new ‘chat bot’ feature to improve the site’s accessibility by allowing audio-only searches. The BRC team created a short video to help users of the site understand how it works, which can be viewed on our site here.
August saw the European Aniridia Conference 2021 being hosted in London on behalf of the Aniridia Network by a team of researchers from the NIHR Moorfields BRC, in collaboration with Moorfields and the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology. It was a great success, with 45 speakers and delegates from 53 countries, including many patients, focussed on sharing the latest insights into this rare condition.
In September, together with Moorfields Eye Charity, we announced the first NIHR Moorfields Eye Charity Advanced Fellowship. The Fellowship was awarded to University of Cambridge researcher Dr Patrick Yu Wai Man, who aims to evaluate patient outcomes and therapies for inherited diseases affecting the optic nerve. The award reinforces our joint commitment to funding the training and development of leaders in eye health.
October saw the BRC’s Public and Patient Involvement and Engagement team, working with the HDR UK INSIGHT eye data hub, took part in the annual Bloomsbury Festival in London. They showcased a life-size robot, A.L.I.C.E., who wowed audiences with her ability (via a smartphone app for visually-impaired people) to recognise almost any random object in front of her. Designed to help young people engage with the concept behind machine learning, A.L.I.C.E. was accompanied by a video animation explaining how computers can be trained to recognise anything with enough data. These ideas underpin the creation of INSIGHT, a joint venture between Moorfields and University Hospitals Birmingham to allow carefully controlled access to anonymised data, thereby encouraging research that will lead to new treatments, diagnosis and better disease management for patients.
For more information about any of these news stories, or for general media enquiries about the NIHR Moorfields BRC, please contact our Communications Manager, Helen Khan: firstname.lastname@example.org
UCL Institute of Ophthalmology website
Moorfields NHS Foundation Trust website