Treating yourself may be the future for macular degeneration

Dr Yvette Wooff’s research ambition is to develop treatments to prevent vision loss using a person’s own cells.

For the past two years, Dr Wooff, a postdoctoral fellow, and a team of researchers in the Australian National University Clear Vision Research Lab have made quick progress in understanding and isolating extracellular vesicles in the retina of the eye – a world first discovery, which was published in 2020.

“Cells need to communicate with each other in order to survive.  Extracellular vesicles allow cell-to-cell communication. The extracellular vesicles carry the cargo (or communication) that the cell wants to share with other cells, delivering a good message in health or bad/miscommunicated message in disease,” Dr Wooff explained.

Understanding what vesicle communication looks like in a healthy retina and how that compares and changes in a degenerating retina has been part of working towards developing life-changing treatments.

“We can take the healthy messages communicated by extracellular vesicles within the retina, and repackage it into another vesicle form, such as in extracellular vesicles from bone marrow stem cells or red blood cells. Then we can deliver it back into a person’s system loaded with this healthy message, and target it to the retina. We hope that this will then restore communication between cells that are damaged and slow the progression of the degeneration.”

The benefit of using a person’s healthy vesicles and redelivering them back into the body is there is less chance of the immune system having a negative response, as the vesicles aren’t foreign.

Since her ground breaking publication, Dr Wooff has secured a BrightFocus Fellowship and a Macular Disease Foundation Australia grant to advance her work.

She was also recently named a 2021 Fresh Scientist. The Fresh Scientist program is a ‘taster course’ for early career researchers to skill-up in communicating with the media, and discussing research in an interview setting.

“It’s wonderful to be in a position where I have funding to continue this very important work. It’s also really important to be able to effectively communicate what I’ve already achieved and what I hope to achieve in future in order to secure future funding.”

“Improving my media savvy and interviewing techniques is something I’m keen to do. The Fresh Scientist award is a great opportunity for me to learn some new skills and meet other early career scientists.”