Our Head of Research Dr Rubina Ahmed answers questions about the '1 to 20' funding gap
Fight for Sight has convened the UK’s leading ophthalmologists and research leaders in the field to sign up to a public letter calling on the new government to develop a national plan on sight loss.
Dr Rubina Ahmed is the Head of Research at Fight for Sight. Here she answers questions about the ‘1 to 20 funding gap’ in eye research and why the government needs to take urgent action.
What is the ‘1:20 funding gap’ and what are Fight for Sight calling on the new government to do?
Currently, only one percent of national research funding is invested in eye research, even though twenty percent of people in the UK will experience serious sight loss or blindness in their lifetime.
The prevalence of sight loss is also on the rise – the number of people in Europe with the leading cause of blindness, age-related macular degeneration, is projected to hit 10 million by 2050.
We believe that in 2020 this lack of focus on the solutions through research is shameful, particularly as gene therapies and stem cell treatments are already restoring sight for patients with some eye conditions at clinical trial.
We know that science has the answers and is already delivering great things. The only barrier is the lack of funding to address the vast number of different eye conditions – with more funding we could apply new techniques to transform the lives of so many more people.
The WHO and UN General Assembly both outlined last year that more investment is needed globally in stopping sight loss and blindness.
We’re calling on the new government to develop a national plan on sight loss and a to define a research agenda that can be used to focus investments in the most pressing issues that are likely to have the greatest impact in the next decade and beyond.
How much more funding does eye research require?
It’s an exciting time in eye research so the possibilities are endless, but currently, we are only able to fund a small proportion of the excellent research applications that come in – this needs to change as we are missing opportunities.
Even just a one percent increase in eye research funding would have a huge impact on tackling the leading causes of blindness. A £5millon injection into eye research would enable ten promising projects to progress to the first stages of clinical trials. These could then be picked up by private investors or developers from phase three clinical trials onwards, meaning that we can get treatments produced more quickly, transforming thousands of lives in the process.
There are so many exciting emerging technologies that are starting to restore sight at clinical trial. Investment in stem cell therapies and gene therapies for age-related macular degeneration and inherited causes of blindness is a priority for us and offers so much potential. For example, we funded early-stage research that has led to potential clinical trials for new treatments for choroideremia and LCA. A clinical trial for Stargardt disease is also imminent. More funding would mean more of these sorts of breakthroughs.
Fight for Sight will be conducting a major research study in 2020, interviewing hundreds of people with sight loss. What are the areas that Fight for Sight will focus on in its research study and why are these important?
Our research study will show the economic and personal impact of sight loss. Blindness can have a huge impact on people’s mental health and ability to work, increasing costs on health systems and infrastructure. The research will include economic analysis, statistics and a literature review to understand the health economics of serious sight loss and blindness.
Sight loss costs the UK over £28 billion each year, yet only 1% of funding for public services is spent on eye research. This equates to just £20 for each person living with sight loss.
Despite the evidence, the scale of this growing health challenge is not being taken seriously. We need the input of those affected by sight loss to demonstrate its impact and to secure more funding for pioneering eye research.
How does Fight for Sight intend to use the findings to lobby Government and secure more funding for eye research?
Once we have gathered our findings we will share them across the sector and develop a plan that will use the data to target decision makers, making the case for sight loss and blindness and why we need more research investment. It is going to take a whole range of institutions and funding vehicles to address this funding gap.
For example, the evidence we collate will help to demonstrate why it is economically in the government’s interest to focus on solutions that could prevent or cure eye diseases, as well as investing in care and support for people once they have developed serious sight loss. This could also transform the lives of those people affected.Join us if you want urgent action on blindness in 2020
 We calculated the ‘one percent of public grant investment’ figure by adding up the 2017/18 contribution to eye research from the five leading grant providing bodies (NIHR, MRC, BBSRC, EPSRC and Innovate UK) as a percentage of their total research investment. We did the same for the fifteen largest sight loss charities. In both cases the figure ended up at approximately one percent (1.1% and 1.2% respectively).
 Source DAE, 2017
 Fight for Sight funded vital early stage research at Imperial College that has led to the development of a new gene therapy treatment for choroideremia. The gene therapy is already halting the disease and even restoring sight for some patients at clinical trial led by Professor Robert MacLaren at Oxford University. If approved, the treatment currently in phase III of clinical trials will be the world’s first gene therapy for this condition.