University of Birmingham in €4m project to train researchers to improve sight-saving treatments

ORBITAL will contribute to research which could lead to more widespread use of less invasive drug delivery methods such as eye drops

Treatment of diseases of the back of the eye such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and diabetic eye disease is set to be improved with a €4m EU-funded project led by Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) in partnership with the University of Birmingham.

The project, ORBITAL, will contribute to research which could lead to more widespread use of less invasive drug delivery methods such as eye drops, contact lenses and microneedle technologies, instead of traditional treatments such as injections.

By understanding what patients and clinicians need in practice, the project aims to train researchers to have the skills necessary to develop these patient-friendly drug delivery technologies and ultimately improve patient experiences and outcomes.

Current treatments include injections into the eye, which can be unpleasant for patients, and the project has been lauded as a timely new approach to meet the challenges of these devastating eye diseases.

Europe’s ageing population and obesity epidemic means that the numbers living with AMD and diabetic eye disease will continue to dramatically increase in the coming years.

Ann Logan, Professor of Molecular Neuroscience at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, will lead the project.  She said: “There is a clear need for efficient, safe, less-invasive and more patient-friendly strategies for the treatment of AMD and diabetic eye disease. 

“These diseases represent a considerable and growing burden on patients and healthcare systems throughout the world. 

“Given the statistics, there is a lack of researchers being trained with the necessary interdisciplinary skills needed to combat such increasing burdens.”

She said that engagement with patients, patient groups and clinicians throughout the entirety of the training programme will ensure that patient-oriented solutions are at the centre of all research activity. 

The ORBITAL (Ocular Research By Integrated Training And Learning) European Training Network is a research and training programme, supported by €4m through a Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska-Curie European Training Network award. This pan-European research project, which starts this September, will see academia, industry, clinicians, patient advocacy groups and hospitals working together to create patient-friendly solutions for blinding diseases and recruitment has started for 15 brilliant, early career researchers to work on the project.

ORBITAL is made up of a consortium of 23 members from Europe, Canada and the US. Also involved are industry associates, including the University of Birmingham spin-out company Neuregenix Ltd, and the Irish charity Fighting Blindness. 

Dr Laura Brady, Head of Research at Fighting Blindness, said: “Fighting Blindness champions the need for meaningful involvement of patients in research.

"Often the only sight-saving treatment available for those living with AMD requires invasive and frequent injections into the back of the eye. 

“Addressing this burden on both the individual and clinical community, ORBITAL holds the potential to develop technologies that are relevant, safe, cost-effective and patient-friendly. 

“We welcome this opportunity to engage with early-stage scientists and ensure our next generation of leaders commence their research careers with the patients’ needs at the forefront of their minds.”

Ends

For more information please contact Emma McKinney, Communications Manager (Health Sciences), University of Birmingham, tel: +44 (0) 121 414 6681, or contact the press office on +44 (0) 7789 921 165.

Notes to editors: 

  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries. 
  • The ORBITAL network is an EU funded innovative training network that will recruit and train 15 early stage researchers (PhD students) across Europe to develop drug delivery technologies that can help treat posterior segment diseases of the eye, e.g. age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. The network is built on an intersectoral (academia, industry, clinicians, patient advocacy groups, hospitals) consortium of 23 members from Europe, Canada and the US. The goal is to train researchers to PhD level, ensuring that they have a clear focus on patient needs and interdisciplinary skills. We will have a strong focus on outreach, dissemination, patient and public engagement.
  • Consortium members are:
  • Beneficiaries: Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland; Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain; The Queen’s University of Belfast, NI; Instituto Superior Técnico, Portugal; University of Iceland (Haskoli Islands), Iceland; University of Birmingham, UK; Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain; University College Dublin, Ireland; Experimentica, Finland; Nanovector SRL, Italy; Ocupharm Diagnostics, Spain
  • Partner organisations: Neuregenix Ltd., UK; HGBeyond, Spain; Rowan University, USA; Colorado School of Mines, USA; Loyola University of Chicago, USA; University of Waterloo, UWL; University of Parma, Italy; OcuMedic Inc., USA; The Vision Clinic, Ireland; Fighting Blindness, Ireland; Hospital das Forcas Armadas, Portugal; Egas Moniz, Portugal
  • Fighting Blindness is a patient-led charity with a vision to cure blindness, support people experiencing sight loss and empower patients. They are the only Irish charity funding research into treatments for sight loss. To date, they have invested over €18 million in more than 100 research and clinical projects. They provide professional counselling and therapeutic services for individuals and families living with vision impairment and blindness. They advocate for equity of access to timely and appropriate diagnosis, healthcare, therapies and support services and, through education and information provision, they work to empower the 247,000 children and adults in Ireland who are blind or visually impaired.
  • Diseases of the posterior segment of the eye are rapidly increasing, partly due to an ageing population (~20% of Europe’s population now over 65). Population ageing affects the entire EU, due to increasing life expectancy and consistently low levels of fertility over recent decades. Such population ageing has been identified by the EU as being involved in causing one of four main healthcare challenges: “rising and potentially unsustainable health care costs, mainly due to an increasing prevalence of chronic diseases, to an ageing population requiring more diversified care”. In the case of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness in the elderly, the number of Europeans with early and late stage AMD will have increased to 21.5 and 4.8 million, respectively, by 2040. 60 million people in Europe have the chronic disease diabetes and with an expected increase of a further 10 million by 2035, and, with up to 40% of sufferers developing DR, as many as 28 million Europeans could have visual impairment due to this disease alone. As such, ORBITAL aims to aid management of complications associated with such chronic diseases. Three common diseases (AMD, diabetic retinopathy and retinopathy of prematurity) are some of the main causes of blindness and severe impairment of vision in elderly patients, working-age adults and children, respectively. As such, these diseases represent a considerable and growing burden on patients and healthcare systems throughout the world. There is no cure for AMD but some forms of the disease can be treated to provide positive outcomes and results. Given the statistics, there is a worrying lack of researchers with the necessary interdisciplinary skills being trained to combat such increasing burdens. Thus, ORBITAL’s deliberate and intrinsic training expertise makes it a vital tool in bridging this particular skills gap. The overall research aim of ORBITAL is to employ a multidisciplinary intersectoral approach to the treatment of PSDs [posterior diseases]. This will improve the quality of life and clinical outcomes for patients by delivering patient-focussed technologies. Prof Logan pointed out that three common diseases, AMD, DR and retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), are some of the main causes of blindness and severe impairment of vision in elderly patients, working-age adults and children, respectively.