Transcending disciplines for transformative eye healthcare

Big challenges don’t always require big solutions – connecting the right people can make all the difference. Restoring vision and preventing sight loss is a significant challenge, so ophthalmic researchers at the University of Liverpool have forged a unique, close-knit network reaching into the Royal Liverpool University Hospital’s specialist St Paul’s Eye Unit. The result is a true example of effective cross-disciplinary research, addressing immediate eye-related healthcare needs for wide societal benefit.

Vision loss and blindness are major problems in the UK and across the world. In the UK alone over two million people are affected by vision and eye health problems. This has inspired Professor Rachel Williams to leverage £1.2 million funding for a clutch of new studies to use high quality engineering to benefit the wealth and health of society.

A materials engineer with 20 years’ experience, Williams now works from the University of Liverpool’s Faculty of Health and Life Science, a testament to the applied multidisciplinary set-up of her ongoing projects. “We can take our ideas from the lab bench right through to clinical practice in one department,” Williams explains. “This is a real advantage we have here in Liverpool.”

Novel materials for contact lenses

One project Williams leads is developing new materials for contact lenses as an alternative to the commonly used silicone-based hydrogels. These lenses are made from a high water content peptide hydrogel, avoiding the toxic monomers used in the manufacture of existing lens materials that require exhaustive washing procedures to remove toxic by-products. The peptide, poly-ɛ-lysine, is already used as a food preservative, so is readily available, cost effective and has passed many safety tests.

These peptides are naturally antimicrobial and another project is developing them as protective lenses that can also deliver drugs. People are vulnerable to infections after eye surgery, and the peptides’ chemistry allows antibacterial and antifungal compounds to be added to them. The lens can thus protect the eye from further damage like a bandage after surgery whilst delivering drugs far more effectively than eye drops. For many serious eye conditions, corneal ulcers for example, eye drops have to be applied every 15 minutes for 48 hours in hospital. “A protective drug delivering contact lens would be more comfortable for the patient, provide a more effective treatment strategy and augment conventional treatments,” says Williams.

Working in partnership

To maximise impact from this ongoing work, Williams is collaborating with two companies, SpheriTech Ltd and UltraVision CLPL, and has received £945,000 funding from research council MRC for further development. Other potential uses of these gels in ocular regenerative medicine applications, initially funded by the MRC through the UKRMP Acellular Technologies Hub, has led to £113,000 extra funding from Fight for Sight.

A more ambitious project is exploring new ways of culturing eye cells (retinal, conjunctiva and corneal) for transplants. There’s a need for new materials and techniques to culture and deliver such cells, and Williams’ group is using specially treated Gortex, commonly used in waterproof boots and clothing, as an innovative substrate for cell culture. Early data are promising, especially for conjunctiva cell transplants.

This research has been funded with £1.2 million through an EPSRC Engineering for Growth Fellowship call. Read a blog post about collaborating with clinicians in India to broaden the global impact of her research.

To find out more about our interdisciplinary research in eye healthcare contact Professor Rachel Williams