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20 Dec 2008
Singapore most prolific in world for eye research per capita
The Straits Times by Liaw Wy-Cin

Singapore punches above its weight in eye research, according to an international journal which has ranked it as the most productive country in such research, when adjusted for population size.

The International Ophthalmology journal found that from 2002 to 2006, Singapore produced 20.49 publications for every one million people, placing it in the top spot, ahead of research heavyweights such as Britain and the United States. 

While the US had the highest annual and total contributions, it ranked seventh on the list of countries most prolific in eye research when adjusted for population size.

One reason Singapore is so big on eye research is its vested interest. More children here become short-sighted and more quickly so than anywhere else in the world.


Myopia is the most common eye problem here and in Asia; some 80 per cent of teenagers here are short-sighted, said chairman of the Singapore Eye Research Institute (Seri), Professor Donald Tan.


About 95 per cent of the total amount of eye research done in Singapore is carried out by Seri, said Prof Tan.


The institute partners public hospitals, universities and public science research institutes to study areas such as myopia, glaucoma, corneal blindness and diabetes-linked blindness.


Eye research is one of five areas of focus under Singapore’s current biomedical sciences research push, said the executive director of the National Medical Research Council (NMRC), Dr Edwin Low.


Said Dr Low: “A rigorous and positive research environment is necessary to bring about better research outcomes, which will eventually be translated to better patient care.


“This is the environment that Seri has successfully built up over the years and one that NMRC highly encourages.”


Last year, Seri appointed an international advisory panel to review its progress and to benchmark it against the top eye research centres in the world.


The panel pitted Seri’s work against that of three institutions – the Johns Hopkins University’s Wilmer Eye Institute, the University College London’s (UCL) Institute of Ophthalmology; and the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA).


The first two are leaders in North America and Europe, while the Australian centre was picked because it was “in our part of the world” and had a similar annual budget for eye research as Seri, said Prof Tan.


The panel found that Seri ranked second among the four in the number of research papers published in top science and medical journals such as Nature and the New England of Medicine.


From the years 2002 to 2006, Seri had 64 such papers in top journals, Johns Hopkins had 54, UCL had 146 and CERA had 33.


But for that same period, Seri published the most number of papers among the four institutes – 428 papers, largely in journals on eye disease.


Prof Tan said the international recognition serves to validate the 10-year-old institute’s work.


It also helps it map a strategic plan for the institute over the next 10 years.


“We know where we stand on an academic level. We now want to study the impact of our research on improving eye care in Singapore and the rest of the world,” said Prof Tan.


He said the institute hopes to put out a report on this in the next three months.


Key projects in progress at Seri


    Eye research success: Atropine eye drops that slow childhood myopia
    What it is: Eye drops that use atropine to slow the progression of myopia in children. 
    Traditionally used to treat a childhood condition called “lazy eye”.
    The results so far: Progression of myopia can be halted in the first year of treatment 
    and reduced by half in the second year, studies have found.
    What next: Ongoing research into using a lower dosage of the drug to reduce the 
    side effects of glare.

    Eye Research success: Vision-training computer software.
    What it is: A program called NeuroVision that improves mild myopia by training the 
    brain to “sharpen” the images seen by the eye.
    The results so far: After 30 minutes of training every other day over 10 weeks, 
    children in one trial could read an average of two lines further down a typical 11-tier 
    eye chart. 
    What next: A larger trial involving four schools that will begin in February.

    Eye research success: World’s first stem cell transplants.

    What it is: Transplants that use master cells, known as stem cells, to grow eye tissue.

    The cells are taken from a healthy eye and used to grow specialized tissue for the 
    cornea – the transparent front part of the eye that covers the pupil – and 
    the surrounding white area.

    Damage to this eye surface is the second leading cause of blindness in the world, after 
    cataracts. Traditional methods involve transplanting tissue from donors or tissue 
    grown from animal cells.

    The results so far: 45 patients treated.


    Eye research success: Asia’s first tooth-in-eye surgery.

    What it is: A last-ditch procedure to cure blindness when treatments such as stem cell 
    grafts and cornea transplants fail.

    It involves implanting the patient’s tooth – in which a hole has been drilled – in the eye 
    socket. A plastic cylinder is placed in the hole to focus light onto the retina at the back 
    of the eye.

    The procedure is suitable for people whose eyes have been damaged by disease or 
    injury, but whose optic nerves are intact.

    The results so far: 25 patients treated.



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