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Researcher seeks cure for a disease that claimed his father's sight

Dr Nigel Barnett in a lab coat sitting in an infrared lab

Nigel Barnett is grateful to have inherited his father’s boundless curiosity and relentless tinkering. After all, they are attributes that could one day help cure the disease that so frustrated Gerald Barnett in his later years.

“Our house was full of books,” says Dr Nigel Barnett, an Associate Professor at Bond University’s Clem Jones Centre for Regenerative Medicine. 

“My father read everything, especially engineering history books. He just loved figuring out how things worked. Growing up I was always pulling bits and pieces apart and helping him and that was where my interest in how things work came from. I just went down the biomedical side.”

Barnett Snr took the engineering route. His first job at 16 was repairing battledamaged RAF fighters and bombers during World War II. When hostilities ended he put himself through night school and technical college to become a chartered engineer. 

There was a mix of envy and regret every time a young Nigel farewelled his father on yet another international business trip to an exotic country. He wanted to travel too, but he also craved knowledge. The boy from the English Midlands studied Physiology at the University of Sheffield before a master's and a Doctor of Philosophy in Vision Science at the University of Oxford. He loved using his brain and initially that is what he wanted to study.

“When I was an undergrad, for my honours, I was interested in neuroscience,” Dr Barnett says. “An opportunity came up at Oxford to work on the retina which is actually part of the brain. I became fascinated by it. The retina is an absolutely beautiful structure. There’s a book by one of the grandfathers in the field called The Retina: An Approachable Part of the Brain and that’s what it is - a window to the brain.”

Dr Barnett came to Bond University via wanderlust, the University of Queensland and the Queensland Eye Institute. By then he was an expert on retinal degeneration. And this is where his father re-enters the story. The man
who so loved reading, pulling things apart and putting them back together was going blind.

“My Dad had age-related macular degeneration (AMD),” Dr Barnett says. “It started in his mid-seventies and by his late seventies, early eighties, it was affecting what he could see. Obviously for him it was terrible. For me it was hard knowing what it was and that there was nothing that could be done. But if you live into your eighties, there’s a big chance you’re going to get AMD.”

AMD is the western world’s leading cause of untreatable blindness. Dr Barnett and his team - Research Fellow Dr Jason Limnios, Senior Research Assistant Cassie Rayner, PhD student Teresa Mammone and collaborators Professor Steve Bottle of QUT and Bond’s Professor Helen O’Neill - are working to change that. 

They hope to implant new retinal cells in the eye, restoring vision to AMD patients. The researchers first developed a new technique for efficiently growing retinal cells from stem cells. They then produced a unique artificial membrane which carries the cells and experiments in rats have shown the treatment can stop blindness in the short-term.

“The next step is to make sure the newly implanted cells survive over the long term,” Dr Barnett says. “We don’t want them to succumb to the same issues that killed the original cells. We’re investigating a number of different methodologies and techniques to address this.”

These include:

  • Modifying the membrane to incorporate drugs or other factors that will allow the cells to survive longer;
  • Applying drugs directly to the eye to reduce inflammation and other issues that lead to the death of the cells in AMD;
  • Modifying the stem cells so the retinal cells they produce carry a built-in protection.

Dr Barnett hopes to begin human clinical trials in 2023. Gerald Barnett died in 2017 aged 91 having helped win a war against tyranny. The tyranny of blindness goes on - but another Barnett has taken up the fight.

This research has been funded by the Clem Jones Foundation, the Cutmore Bequest to Bond University and the National Health and Medical Research Council. 

If you would like to join them in the quest to cure blindness caused by age-related macular degeneration, contact the Office of Engagement on +61 7 5595 4403.