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Grantee in the News: Researcher’s eye-opening approach to fighting macular degeneration nets a half million-dollar grant (University of Canberra)

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Dr. Matt Rutar in a lab wearing lab coat by a desk.
Photo: Tyler Cherry, University of Canberra

Taking a unique approach to better diagnose and treat one of the world’s leading causes of blindness, a researcher from the University of Canberra in Australia has received a $500,000 boost for his three-year project, thanks to a grant from BrightFocus Foundation’s Macular Degeneration Research program. 

Associate Professor Matt Rutar from the university’s Faculty of Science and Technology will target components of the inflammatory response in age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and potentially harness them to fight a disease that currently has few available treatments.  

AMD is one of the major causes of blindness worldwide, according to Dr. Rutar.  

“It affects one in seven people over the age of 50 in Australia – there are currently eight million people at risk of developing it,” he said.  

“By 2030, it is estimated that 1.7 million people in the country will have the disease – it’s of particular concern in many countries with an ageing population, like Australia.”  

Though AMD is influenced by a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors, inflammation and immune response are now recognized as key features of the disease.  

It has two forms – the slow-developing ‘dry’ form which causes gradual vision loss or atrophy, and the ‘wet’ or neovascular type (nAMD), which is more sudden and causes blood vessels to leak into the macula, resulting in vision loss.  

Both forms affect the macula, which is part of the retina and located in the central region at the back of the eye. It is responsible for color vision and seeing fine details.  

“If you think of your eye as a film camera, the macula is a key part of the photographic film, helping to process what you see directly in front of you. Damage to the macula can result in someone going legally blind,” Dr. Rutar said.  

For someone with AMD – and many other diseases – inflammation is part of the body’s natural immune response. If left unchecked, however, inflammation may exacerbate cell death in neurodegenerative diseases such as AMD.  

A component of this response, white blood cells (called neutrophils) have an important strategy to kill invading microorganisms and protect the body – neutrophil extracellular traps, or NETs. These are the components that Dr Rutar has set his sights on, forming the focus of his potentially life-changing research.  

“Neutrophils are among the first responders to trauma and disease – the NETs activate to protect the body by casting webs of their own DNA to ensnare and bind pathogens,” Dr. Rutar says.  

However, NETs can also have unintended consequences, with the potential to go rogue and trigger autoimmune responses, which may lead to detrimental inflammation and tissue damage.  

That’s what makes Dr. Rutar think that they could be the missing pieces in the puzzle – if the inflammatory response itself is damaging the vision of nAMD patients, can the potential contributors to this response be harnessed for better diagnosis and treatment?  

His research team will investigate in greater detail the role NETs play in promoting vision loss seen in nAMD – and using advanced techniques, including single-cell RNA profiling, they will explore the potential of NETs as new therapeutic targets for improving patients’ vision outcomes.  

“Ultimately, this work will provide an important framework for efficient, effective and accessible new therapies and diagnostics to reduce the progression of vision loss in nAMD,” Dr. Rutar said. 

To learn more, check out this video of Dr. Rutar explaining his work.  

Originally published by University of Canberra on July 25, 2023. Republished with permission.
Credits: Written by Suzanne Lazaroo, photos by Tyler Cherry, and video by John Masiello, all of the University of Canberra.  

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