Richard Lee – University College London

Dr Richard Lee is an ophthalmologist and immunologist at University College London

Dr Richard Lee is leading a JDRF-funded project to develop a test to predict a person’s risk of developing severe diabetic retinopathy, to help protect people’s sight. Here he describes the project’s focus and the benefits of working with JDRF.

What is retinopathy and why are people with type 1 at risk?

Retinopathy is damage to or disease of the retina, a light-sensitive layer in the eye which is crucial for vision. People with type 1 have an increased risk of developing retinopathy as high blood glucose levels can damage the blood vessels in the retina, affecting its supply of nutrients and oxygen, and potentially leading to a loss of vision.

What is your project about?

The aim of our project is to create a ‘biomarker’ – something that we can measure to tell us which people with type 1 are most likely to develop severe retinopathy.

To do this, we’ll recruit people with type 1 who have either mild or severe retinopathy and take detailed pictures of their retinas with specialist cameras.

We’ll also use state of the art technology to assess the function of their immune cells, such as seeing which genes are switched on or off, what kind of proteins the cells are making, and what types of molecules are on their surface.

We’ll then look for any patterns in these measurements that are found in those with severe retinopathy but not those with mild retinopathy.

These patterns will be our biomarker.

How might it help people with type 1?

If we could predict who is most likely to develop retinopathy, we will be able to design ‘smart’ clinical trials which are faster and more cost-effective meaning that new treatments can be approved as soon as possible.

We will also be able to ensure that those who are at high risk attend regular eye tests, and reduce the number of check-ups for those at lower risk.

How important is collaboration in this project?

Crucial! Three of us designed and co-lead the project.

Dr Dawn Sim is the expert in type 1 and retinopathy who is recruiting people through her clinic at Moorfields Eye Hospital.

To develop the biomarker we’re also drawing heavily on advanced technologies to study the human immune system through the Institut Pasteur’s Dr Darragh Duffy.

And of course, this project is entirely based on using images and blood samples from people with type 1: it would be impossible without their participation.

Overall, collaboration allows us to bring together the best of what’s available across institutions around the world for the benefit of people with type 1.

What are the benefits of working with JDRF on a project such as this?

JDRF has been an outstanding charity to work with. As well as actively helping to shape the direction of the research, it has been extremely understanding of some of the administrative challenges in international collaborations such as this and has provided us with the support and time so that we can establish this project effectively.