Sarah Doyle ResearchResearchers will examine a particular - but understudied - type of immune cell in the retina which has major potential to heal diseased blood vessels in the eye.

An exciting project to explore new therapeutic approaches to treat blindness has been awarded a distinguished European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant today. Dr Sarah Doyle, the grant recipient, is from the Department of Clinical Medicine and the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience (TCIN). The 5-year project is worth €2 million.

Project NK-Sight: Exploring Natural Immunity in Retinal Neovascular Disease will tackle the problem of treatment-resistance in some patients when given what is currently the only pharmaceutical treatment available to treat Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and Diabetic retinopathy (DR). AMD and DR are - globally - the most common eye diseases that lead to irreversible sight loss.

In AMD and DR, unwanted blood vessels leak and can grow uncontrollably which causes damage to the retina at the back of the eye.  Ultimately, it is damage to this part of the eye that leads to blindness. 

The current treatment works very effectively for many people, however, approximately one third of people don’t respond adequately to the treatment, and of those that do, almost half will eventually become resistant to the treatment within 2 years. There is now a very real and urgent need for new therapeutic approaches to treat these blinding diseases. 

This ERC project aims to explore how Sarah and her team can harness the immune system to fight blindness. Traditionally, blocking the immune system has been used to treat inflammatory diseases.  However, our immune system has evolved to allow us to fight disease and more recently, amazing clinical advances have allowed scientists to harness the immune system activating it to treat and cure some types of cancer. 

The ERC award will allow the research team to study a particular type of immune cell which is understudied in the retina but has major potential to heal diseased blood vessels in the eye. 

The team hopes that this research will one day lead to the development of new treatment strategies for AMD and DR.

On receiving her award, Dr Sarah Doyle said:

I’m so excited to have been awarded this ERC funding. It gives me an amazing opportunity to recruit the most talented PhD students and Post-doctoral researchers to work on a project that my lab and I have been building towards for the last few years. I’m especially grateful for the support of friends, colleagues, and collaborators who contributed to brainstorming sessions when I was forming the ideas for this research avenue, and to Trinity’s research office for their very practical assistance. 

I’d also like to acknowledge how important the previous funding support of our national agencies, SFI, IRC, HRB, and charities Fighting Blindness Ireland and BrightFocus Foundation have been for this achievement.  Each and every previously funded project provided a critical stepping stone to securing this prestigious ERC consolidator award and I am immensely grateful. I look forward to getting started on this important work and hope that one day our research will lead to the development of novel immunotherapies for patients living with wet AMD and DR.

Congratulating Sarah on her award, Professor Colin Doherty, Head of School at the School of Medicine, said:

I am absolutely delighted to welcome the awarding of the first ERC grant to the School of Medicine at Trinity College Dublin to Professor Sarah Doyle from the discipline of clinical medicine. I continue to be amazed and honoured by the quality of researcher associated with the School and in Professor Doyle's case I can say that the body of her research work represents the best of what Irish translational research has to offer. At the end of the day Professor Doyle's focus on the plight of visually impaired citizens is the driving force of her research excellence. Congratulations to her from all at the School of Medicine."