New €4m WIT facility to pioneer nutrition and vision research

23 Mar 2012

An MPRG researcher uses the Vision Research Centre's vision-testing equipment during a clinical trial into the area of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Photo courtesy of WIT

Waterford Institute of Technology’s new €4m Vision Research Centre will officially open this afternoon when it is launched by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD. The facility is aiming to be the only research and vision testing centre of its kind in the world, leading research in areas such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

The 10 full-time researchers based at the centre include vision scientists, nutritionists, biochemists, statisticians, optometrists and ophthalmologists.

The centre is also home to the Macular Pigment Research Group (MPRG), which is carrying out in-depth studies into AMD. The age-related blindness condition is thought to affect up to 80,000 people in Ireland, costing the State up to €133m each year. The MPRG has been carrying out research for the past 10 years at WIT.

According to Dr John Nolan, principal investigator of the MPRG, the Vision Research Centre is the only one of its kind in the world because it brings together state-of-the-art vision-testing equipment in one location.

“This enables our PhD students and scientists to conduct and manage clinical trials in the area of nutrition and vision to the highest possible standard,” he said. The Vision Research Centre can also accommodate patients participating in its ongoing clinical trials.

Macular pigment discovery

Nolan said the facility is also unique in that it allows the research scientists to measure vision at a super-sensitive level.

“Over the last 10 years, we have been working to identify the best ways to measure vision in people with and without eye disease. In doing this, we have discovered that a nutritional pigment at the back of the eye, known as macular pigment, is key to enhancing visual performance and protecting against AMD,” he said.

Dr Ruaidhrí Neavyn, president of Waterford Institute of Technology, also spoke about how the MPRG’s work has added to WIT’s reputation as a higher education institute with a strong research focus.

“Their new facility, based in Carriganore House, will further enhance this reputation, as well as adding a new dimension to the South East region’s capabilities as a centre for cutting-edge research,” he said.

The MPRG group is carrying out several research projects. The largest study, known as CREST (Central Retinal Enrichment Supplementation Trial), received €1.5m of funding from the European Research Council. The study is examining the role of nutritional supplements in visual performance and the prevention of AMD.

The research grant enabled the MPRG to employ five additional research staff, said Nolan today.

Vision, nutrition and eye health

Three other projects are also under way. These projects are being funded by the Cambridge-based Howard Foundation and Waterford-based Nutrasight Consultancy.

The projects include the MOST (Meso-zeaxanthin Ocular Supplementation Trial) study, which Nolan said has already shown important links between supplements of meso-zeaxanthin, the central component of macular pigment, and improvements in macular pigment levels and vision.  

Another study called EXIT (Egg Xanthophyll Interventional Trial), is researching the role of nutrition in eggs for eye health.

Later this year, Nolan said the researchers are also hoping to start a project examining the potential role of nutrition in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic