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Eye on the future

  Thursday, 09 l 12 l 2010 Source:  The Straits Times   
By: Susan Chen

With its solid foundation and research programmes, Singapore Eye Research Institute is poised to lead the way in eyecare discoveries

prof-wong-seriLONG before biomedical research took off here, Professor Arthur Lim, the “father” of ophthalmology in Singapore, had a vision to set up an eye research institute. In 1997, the Singapore Eye Research Institute (Seri) was established, with an aim to be a global centre of excellence in eye and vision research in Asia, focusing on research and treatment of eye diseases with particular emphasis on those typical to Asia, such as myopia, glaucoma, corneal disease and diabetic retinopathy.

In its early years, Seri encountered many hurdles in its pursuit of research, including funding constraints — there were few competitive grants. Talent, too, was lacking, as research work was not viewed favourably as a credible career option then, and the institute had insufficient funds to attract foreign talents to Singapore. Over the years, Seri has made significant strides to establish itself as a premier eye research institute in Asia, with a world-leading reputation in broad-based translational research programmes for many eye diseases.

The Seri team, headed by its chairman, Professor Donald Tan, has spearheaded pivotal ocular research programmes and effectively placed Singapore on the world’s ophthalmology roadmap. Today, eye research is one of the five key areas of research identified by the Singapore Government’s biomedical science initiatives, alongside cancer, cardiovascular/metabolic disorders, neurosciences and infectious diseases. Seri’s research has benefited numerous patients. For example, the Seri team, led by Professor Tan, is the first in South-east Asia to perform the Osteo-Odonto Keratoprosthesis (OOKP) artificial cornea procedure on a 19-year-old Thai in 2004, using his own canine tooth to implant a plastic cornea into one eye.

Seri won three international awards for their work in this area. In another study, Professor Wong Tien Yin’s Multi-Centre Retinal Stroke (MRCS) research findings showed that the eyes could provide a clue to stroke risk, and that retinal photography could complement cerebral CT and MR imaging to diagnose stroke. For its sterling research work, Seri was conferred the Special Merit title in this year’s Singapore Prestige Brand Award.

The Special Merit is a new category introduced last year that recognises and honours government agencies and not for- profit organisations established for at least three years, and which have developed and managed their brands effectively through various branding initiatives.  Professor Wong, who has been instrumental in moulding the Seri culture and spearheading the institute towards continued success, says the institute is honoured to receive the award and continued support from patients and the community will take it to greater heights.

He says: “We believe that winning the award serves as an endorsement of the great work carried out by our faculty — in our endeavor to improve visual health and the quality of life, in response to the needs of the public and patients. “Seri is further humbled and grateful to our patients who have supported and participated in our studies, which indirectly reflects the faith they have in Seri’s research abilities.”

With Singapore’s ageing population, eye diseases will continue to be a key concern. Professor Wong cautions that in the next three years, Singapore will see a gradual escalation of major eye diseases such as cataract, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and age-rel ated macular degeneration, which are the leading causes of visual impairment and disability in the elderly. 

Also, Singapore has one of the highest myopia rates in the world. Many conditions of vision impairment are due to ageing, injury or infection of the cornea. These diseases collectively referred to as ocular surface diseases, accounts for 12 million cases of blindness globally, the bulk of which are found in the more underdeveloped countries in Asia and Africa. “Seri will concentrate its focus on these areas of concern, with our ultimate aspiration always in focus, that is, to do good research of direct relevance to our patients and the general public,” says Professor Wong.

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