A new research centre at the University of Waterloo School of Optometry and Vision Science aims to use advanced eye imaging to make breakthroughs in better understanding, diagnosing and treating eye conditions and diseases. It also aims to use the eye's unique properties to find biomarkers that could aid interdisciplinary teams in the early identification of systemic disease.

About 2.2 billion people around the world have vision impairments, many of which could have been prevented with early diagnosis and treatment. Several common diseases affecting other parts of the body also have manifestations in the relatively transparent tissues of the eye, so there is great potential to identify early biomarkers of disease through ocular imaging.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the Ontario Research Fund (ORF) each recently announced $2.36 million to establish the new research centre, tentatively called the Canadian Vision Imaging Centre.

The funding from the CFI and ORF makes up the bulk of the $6.2 million setup cost and will go towards purchasing state-of-the-art equipment for the new centre.

"With the establishment of this new research centre, we are truly moving to the forefront of research that uses the eye as the window to the brain and body," said Dr. Stanley Woo, director of the School. "By being able to better examine everything from live cells to the adaptational behaviour of people with vision loss, we'll be poised to make discoveries that could transform patients' lives."

The centre will create a hub for interdisciplinary, multi-institutional research by attracting talent at all levels from across the world. Its equipment will be centrally located and shared to facilitate collaboration.

"The Ontario government is proud to provide $2.36 million for the University of Waterloo School of Optometry and Vision Science through the Ontario Research Fund," said Jill Dunlop, Minister of Colleges and Universities. "Supporting Ontario postsecondary institutions in conducting cutting-edge research like this can result in greater quality of life for Ontarians and ensure our province stays at the forefront of innovation."

"The work of this research centre could change the landscape of vision science and eye health," said Dr. Chris Hudson, a professor and co-principal investigator of the project. "To give just one example, Dr. Vivian Choh is working on cellular-level causes of presbyopia, the near-universal hardening of the lens that results in difficulty with close vision as we age. Her work could lead to being able to deal with presbyopia through an injection or eyedrops instead of reading glasses."

"There are so many opportunities for game-changing effects on disease," said Dr. Elizabeth Irving, also a professor and co-principal investigator. "It's an impressive group of people we're bringing together all in one place, and with a clinic downstairs, there's a ready population base for studies. Put these pieces together with state-of-the-art equipment and we should be able to make advances in multiple fields."

Initially, the team of researchers will focus on four research themes, each leveraging a unique suite of equipment. The ocular microscopy suite will image eye tissues at the cellular and tissue levels, which will allow researchers to understand dynamic, live cell processes. This could lead to new therapies and treatment methods in areas such as dry eye disease, cataracts and presbyopia.

The ocular imaging suite will allow researchers to examine the structure and function of the living eye and brain with state-of-the-art technology. One aim is to find sensitive biomarkers that indicate the earliest signs and improve the ongoing monitoring of diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, glaucoma and macular degeneration – diseases scientists suspect can be more effectively treated when diagnosed earlier.

The ocular perfusion suite – perfusion is the passage of blood through tissues – will non-invasively investigate the effects of gravity on blood flow and metabolic activity within the eye. This work could help astronauts, who can develop a vision-threatening condition by working in a zero-gravity environment for sustained periods. It could also lead to advances in treatment for people with diseases such as diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma, which are characterized by unstable blood perfusion to the eye.

Finally, the immersive virtual reality lab will enable comprehensive assessment of the real-world impacts of conditions such as concussion and amblyopia, where the brain and two eyes don't work well together, leading to vision loss.

"Putting all of us in the same space will encourage the cross-pollination of ideas," said Dr. Jennifer Hunter, an associate professor and team member. "We'll have people working side by side on different projects that can overlap and result in the new ideas that will lead to scientific advances. Sharing the equipment allows our research dollars to go further so we can see more, learn more, and ultimately, help more people see."

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