Starter Grant for Clinical Lecturers awardee

University of Southampton

Oral dopamine replacement in the developing albino retina – a proof of concept study

To celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Starter Grants for Clinical Lecturers scheme we are pleased to feature case studies of past and present Starter Grant awardees. Dr Helena Lee was awarded a Starter Grant for Clinical Lecturers in 2015. Here she explains how the award helped her to achieve further funding and progress her career in research. She also highlights some of the main achievements of her research career so far.

 

Can you give us an overview of your research interests?

Currently there are no treatments for the eye problems seen in albinism. The average vision in albinism at 20/80 is below UK driving standards, which has implications for school, work and social life. In albinism, a chemical called L-DOPA is missing from the eye and this causes problems with eye development and therefore poor eye sight. However, the eye is still able to change and develop in young children with albinism. Replacing L-DOPA in albinism at a young age may potentially improve eye development and eyesight. My primary research interest is focused on investigating abnormal eye development in albinism and developing new treatments, e.g. L-DOPA, that can change how the eye develops and improve eyesight in children with albinism.

What has the impact of your Starter Grant been so far?

Using the funding provided by my Starter Grant I aimed to determine if early oral L-DOPA replacement in albinism, while the retina is still maturing, can optimise retinal and visual development. I also investigated exactly how L- DOPA deficiency triggers abnormalities of retinal development. The work provided the important preliminary data that demonstrated for the first time that post-natal L-DOPA supplementation can rescue retinal development, morphology and visual function in a murine model of human albinism. This provided the pilot data that supported my successful MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship application, which has resulted in my appointment as an Associate Professor and Honorary Consultant Ophthalmologist.

In addition to my Starter Grant, I have participated in a wide range of Academy activities including Spring Meetings (now CATAC), the mentoring scheme and SUSTAIN, an innovative programme enabling female researchers to thrive in their independent research careers. These programmes provided me with many useful skills such as networking, grant writing, surviving rejection/failure, communicating and presenting, planning and organisation, work-life balance, leadership and team building. More importantly, the support and encouragement that I received built my confidence and helped me to cope with many of the difficulties and challenges that have arisen throughout the course of my career.

What’s next for you and your research?

Currently my research is focused on: Oral Levodopa treatment in Improving Visual development in Infants and young children with Albinism - the OLIVIA study. Over the next ten years, I plan to expand my research into identifying additional novel therapeutic targets in albinism and other retinal developmental disorders and translating these into clinical practice.

 

Research highlights

  • Fight for Sight Award in 2015
  • MRC Clinician Scientist Award in 2018
  • Promotion to Associate Professor in 2018

You can also watch Helena talking about her experiences and her work in this short video: 'Improving eye development for children with albinism.' 

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