Professor Frank Schaeffel has spent a quarter of a century studying myopia, the phenomenon of how the eye often grows too long and becomes short-sighted. Schaeffel, who is the Head of the Section of Neurobiology of the Eye at the Institute for Ophthalmic Research in Tübingen, Germany, has scored some crucial breakthroughs, yet for much of his career he has felt like a lone explorer in myopia research.
© Fotolia, 2013
While the other parts of the world have forged ahead in studying myopia, Europe has been vacant, he says. "Research on myopia exploded in the 1980s, with many new labs starting in the United States, Australia and Asia," he says. "However, we had just only one lab in Germany and one in the UK working on this topic."
In 2005, he decided to turn the situation around by putting together a European consortium to bundle myopia research. With the help of like-minded academics, he applied for a grant from the Marie Curie Research Training Network (RTN) and created MyEuropia. MyEuropia, which was granted €3.17 million from the European Commission, as a Marie Curie Action (MCA), provided a platform for students studying physics, genetics, computer science, engineering and other fields to receive training in biological techniques and other topics related to ophthalmology.
The network included Germany's University of Tübingen, the Rodenstock GmbH in Munich, Germany, King's College London, Cardiff University in Wales, University of Leipzig in Germany, Spain's University of Murcia, and the French biomedical and public health research institution INSERM. Their research addressed three areas in myopia:
Optics: designing and testing new spectacle types to reduce myopia progression, together with new optical techniques to obtain continuous scans of the refraction across the visual field;
- Genetics: large-scale human screening studies to map the genome-carrying genes linked to myopia;
- Biochemical signals: the growth signals released from the retina and how they reach the back of the eye.
Schaeffel says the research and the training of the students has been remarkably successful. It is not merely that seven doctoral students were trained and finished their degree, but that some 44 peer-reviewed original research articles were published in high-ranking journals, with more to come.
There were many scientific breakthroughs including the selectively breeding of chickens to become either very myopic or almost not myopic in just two generations, showing how short-sightedness is determined by many genes. MyEuropia's industrial partner, Munich-basedRodenstock, was able to develop new spectacle designs to cope with the optical problems of myopia, and to inhibit further myopia development. And the 13th International Myopia Conference was held in Tübingen in July 2010, an event that Schaeffel says meant that virtually every myopia researcher around the world now knows about the MyEuropia network.
Schaeffel says the project helped put the future of myopia research in the hands of young scientists at the start of their career. Around the world, the MyEuropia network was repeatedly quoted in myopia literature. Most of the students found post-doctorate positions, although the post-doctorate working at Rodenstock was hired by the European Patent office in Munich. One of the scientists received the respected Attempto Award, worth €7,500, based on his work in MyEuropia. "We have generated some long-ranging and also long-lasting scientific networks of the fellows, now working in different labs and different places but still friends," he says. "And we have developed new technologies that may in part become commercially available in the future."