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Dr Helena Lee

Associate Professor in Ophthalmology, University of Southampton

Starter Grant for Clinical Lecturers Awardee (2015), SUSTAIN women in science programme (2018), Academy mentee (2015-present)

Being part of the Academy's women in science programme reminded me why I love science and research.

My research was finally showing promising data for a potential new treatment to improve the eyesight of children with albinism when family pressures and a series of grant rejections nearly led me to leave research for a more financially secure job as a consultant.

It was only with the help of my Academy mentor that I realised I could balance my research and clinical duties while supporting my family. Every day in the laboratory I am thankful for this.

Albinism affects 1 in 4000 people in the UK, and 1 in 1000 people in sub-Saharan Africa. People with albinism have very poor eyesight, which causes issues throughout their lives, from getting around to accessing education. We currently have no effective treatments to help improve their vision.

One of my patients was an absolutely gorgeous little girl with long blonde hair. She was about four years old and wanted to grow up to be a princess. But she was also a very sad and anxious little girl, as due to her albinism she struggled to find Mum and Dad in a crowd, to read her bedtime story, or even cross the road.

My albinism research

My research is developing new treatments that can change how the eye develops and improve eyesight in children with albinism.

We know in children the brain has an amazing ability to adapt and change. This neuroplasticity forms the core of my work. I know that L-dopa is needed for normal eye development. I also know that L-dopa is missing in the eye development of children with albinism. So I’ve been working on how we use L-dopa to wake up the vision of children with albinism.

Using funding from the Academy’s Starter Grant scheme, I tested the effects of L-dopa supplementation in mice with albinism. When I gave this to the mice in their drinking water, I got massive increases in the amount of retinal electrical activity in the mice’s eyes.

This is the first time we’ve proven that we can manipulate how the eye grows and develops in albinism to rescue retinal development and improve vision.

This Starter Grant 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 at the University of Southampton.

This allows me to continue my research through my new OLIVIA study: Oral Levodopa treatment in Improving Visual development in Infants and young children with Albinism. What I’ve achieved so far is only step one. I’m now working out what are the best doses, and looking to move on to clinical trials in children. This could transform how we treat albinism in children and set a precedent for how we treat other childhood eye diseases.

I have also attended Academy career development events and been part of the Academy’s SUSTAIN programme for female researchers, which provided me with many useful skills such as surviving rejection, team-building, leadership and work-life balance. More importantly, the support and encouragement that I received from these programmes built my confidence and helped me to cope with many of the difficulties and challenges that have arisen through my career.

My Academy mentors and the SUSTAIN programme gave me the confidence and skills that eventually led to a fellowship. It secured my future in academia. I could not have done it without them.

The Academy is an independent charity with no major endowments or legacy funding. Help us support more people like Helena: visit our dedicated support us webpage .

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