'Without research we won't move forward with new treatments'

Over the last few months many labs and universities have been forced to close and suspend their research due to the coronavirus outbreak.

However, researchers in Bristol have managed to continue with many of their research projects, thanks to social distancing and other measures that were put in place. This is particularly the case for studies looking at alternative treatments for wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD). 

Tomás Burke, consultant ophthalmologist at Bristol Eye Hospital and NIHR local clinical research network lead for Ophthalmology in the region, said: “While colleagues in other regions have had to suspend all research activity due to COVID-19, we have managed to buck the trend a little bit in Bristol and were able to continue some studies for our patients with certain sight-threatening conditions.”

When the UK went into lockdown in March, the research team at the hospital went through all the existing trials to decide which ones could be safely suspended and which must be kept going. The majority of the trials for wet AMD were deemed essential.

Eleanor Hiscott, clinical research unit manager, said: “The patients are on experimental treatment we need to make sure they are OK. It would have been more concerning to be leaving them with no check-ups or treatment.”

The studies continuing at Bristol Eye Hospital include the STAR trial, which the Macular Society has previously helped recruit patients for. The trial is looking at a new treatment, which uses radiation to treat AMD, known as stereotactic radiotherapy (SRT). In early clinical trials the results have suggested that for carefully selected patients SRT roughly halves the number of injections that people require, with about a quarter of people needing no further injections.

Consultant ophthalmologist Clare Bailey, who is the Clinical Director of the Research and Treatment unit at Bristol Eye Hospital, said it was thanks to our trust research and development (R&D) department that they have been able to continue. She said: “Very early on the trust’s R&D department stated that research was to be prioritised during the Covid crisis, not just for Covid but to allow trials to continue if safe to do so for other conditions. That was extremely helpful

She added: "Research into macular disease is so important and without it we would not be moving forward with new treatments. We hope to be able to continue with as much research as possible during this period. Our hope is that there may be a treatment for the dry type of the disease before too long but further research needs to continue to get to that point.”

Clinicians at Bristol Eye Hospital have also said that they have been doing everything they can to reassure patients about the measures that have been taken about social distancing. Dr Bailey added: “We have found that by phoning up patients who usually attend the wet AMD services, to explain the measure that we have put in place, we have maintained very high attendance rates for these clinics.  Many patients said that they were grateful for the call, as had helped reassure them about attending.”

The Macular Society funds research to find a cure. Read more about some of the projects we are currently funding.