Local researchers miss out on funds

A TEAM of University of Western Australia researchers making significant inroads into repairing eye sight is just one of 26 projects that received a recent National Health and Medical Research Council grant.

The UWA “Use it or lose it” eye sight research received nearly $400,000 in funding.

In total WA tallied $10.2 million out of a national spend of $163.8 million.

WA researchers applied for 157 grants. Only 26 of those were successful and only one of those came from outside of UWA – Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, which leaves WA with the lowest grant conversion rate in the country.

According to UWA Associate Professor and Use it or Lose it researcher Sarah Dunlop, the return rate for WA research was disappointing. However, she was thankful for receiving continued funding.

“We are utterly reliant on funding,” Associate Professor Dunlop said.

“With only 17 per cent receiving funding it is verging on unsustainable. People take so long to train and to develop their ideas and research and if there is no funding then yes they look elsewhere.”

Associate Professor Dunlop said changes to State Government funding had also reduced R&D budgets.

Her team of researchers have been investigating the development and regeneration of the visual system for the past 20 years.

The team’s most recent research has been to understand how regenerated optic cells behave.

Associate Professor Dunlop said theirs was the first lab to do so.

“Once you have the fibres to regenerate you have to be able to get them to work,” she said.

Associate Professor Dunlop said the outcomes of her team’s research had direct benefits for other neurological research such as spinal chord injuries.

“It is a good model to use because it is a relatively straight forward pathway. If we have a proof of principle it will help other research areas,” she said.

“The whole of the brain works like a map, you know when you are touching your wrist and your shoulder.’

Associate Professor Dunlop said research on fish, frogs and now lizards was paving the way to show that training could help vision.

“Goldfish get everything right. When you crush the optic nerve the cells will rejuvenate and go back to the brain and the cells go back to the right part of the brain, or the city, and they go to the right part of the city, or the address,” she said.

“Frogs are almost as good but they lose a small proportion of cells and they don’t see quite as well.

“We then studied reptiles and a local lizard, the dragon lizard. It turned out to be a powerful model. When you legion the optic nerve a good number of the cells go back to the brain, 70 per cent survive. But the lizard can’t see because the cells go back to the wrong city and the wrong place in the city. It is a dysfunctional generation.

“We said to ourselves these lizards are sitting there and can’t see they’re probably not getting too much visual stimulation and we thought we would do some training.

“We did three one hour sessions a week on visual tasks. We got a piece of food on a stick and we moved it in front of them. What we discovered is that if you do it for long enough it is sufficient for them to see again.”

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