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The Voice of Vision Research in Europe

Since its inception a decade ago, the European Vision Institute has strived to address problems with vision; and as CEO Dr Thomas H Wheeler-Schilling explains, the organisation has a bold vision all of its own.

What are the aims and guiding principles of the European Vision Institute and what need do they answer?

The European Vision Institute (EVI) was founded 10 years ago, with a view to creating a platform for the vision research community in Europe. Prior to its inception, it was felt by a number of the key players in this field that the visibility of vision research at the European level was not that clear and highly fragmented. This resulted in a lack of communication and knowledge about developments which was detrimental to scientific advance and more importantly, was restricting consistent and high value support of impacted citizens in the EU. Therefore we considered how to organize the Institute, and after review, decided to organize it as an umbrella organization for all vision scientists as an European Economic Interest Grouping (EEIG) on a non-profit basis. Now we have the main office in Brussels, as well as four liaison offices in London, Tübingen, Paris and Coimbra. Further offices are possible where needed. A prime aim of the EVI is to build bridges between clinically oriented ophthalmology and the basic researchers working in the area of vision. At present these are still two separate worlds with too little exchange of ideas. We have to facilitate talks between them so they understand the problems that each side faces. I think it is extremely important that we find ways to get the knowledge emerging from the laboratories to the eye clinics, and subsequently to the patients.

What are the most common issues that you have encountered in ophthalmic research?

On a European level, different programs are funded in order to support research and innovation. The problem for numerous vision scientists is that all these programs are quite difficult to understand. It is often not clear how these policy-driven instruments are established by the relevant different Departments (known as Directorates-Generals) of the European Commission. I believe that there is an urgent need for us to standardize and simplify this sort of research, – especially in terms of the presently very complex application and implementation procedures and financial reporting tools. In addition, specific calls for vision research related topics are rare as can be seen in the previous calls for applications under the EU 7th Framework Program – in contrast to other fields of biomedicine (e.g. cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular). Under these circumstances and in spite of a high innovation potential in vision research, it is difficult for the scientists to get their projects off the ground.

In what way does EVI help to devise and implement programmes and projects for new strategies for addressing eye diseases?

One thing we are trying to do is organize events to present the right information to the right people. Beyond the scientific community, our main target groups are stakeholders from the private and public sector as patient organizations, companies and policy-makers. For example, on June 22nd, 2011 we are organizing a parliamentary evening in the European Parliament on the topic of ‘Finding new Treatments for Blinding Disorders’. The second thing we have implemented is a web-based portal, organized by the EVI, known as the ‘Gateway to Vision Research’ (www.vision-research.eu) which is free for everyone and has several hundred visitors per day worldwide. It features information about upcoming events, news and research projects within the field as well as biographies of key people, including those who are formally retired. This is very valuable and presents a real possibility to move the field forward, by focusing on the rich knowledge of these people. We give people the opportunity to contact other organizations, initiatives or specialists dealing in these fields.

Could you elaborate on the work of the EVI in helping young researchers to actively participate in the field?

A key element to improving research and patient welfare is the support and encouragement of young researchers, who are the real and too often neglected future of our field. On our web portal, we have a site called ‘Young Researcher in Focus’ which gives them a platform to present their important work: approximately 70-80% of the research activities are actually carried out by doctoral students and young postdocs. One idea we have developed was a ‘Young Researcher Vision Camp’, because we noticed that there are a lot of conferences in five-star hotels, which are often not financially feasible for younger scientists. We wanted to develop an event to specifically attract younger scientists and we held the first camp last year at ‘Schloss Wildenstein’ (an old castle on the Danube in southwest Germany that is now a youth hostel). Usually students go to conferences to listen to senior scientists talk but we did it the other way round. The young researchers held the talks and senior scientists listened and gave feedback and mentoring. In addition to facilitating traditional strategies, we are working to improve recruitment and retention of the best young researchers and to support their careers in the traditionally very hierarchical structure in university medicine. At present, doctors are expected to give excellent care to their patients as well as being gifted teachers and great researchers; and this is pretty unrealistic, so we are trying to give the existing institutions feedback to see if we can change and improve the system. Therefore, when doctors are at the beginning of their careers, those who are really interested in research will get support to do research; and those who are really interested in patient care – which is a wonderful thing – will be given the right education and courses to improve their skills. We want to give advice on how to improve training and education so that we get good researchers and good clinicians.

To what extent does the EVI address eye diseases that are difficult or impossible to be treated presently?

Currently in the western world there are five leading causes of eye diseases to be addressed that are difficult or impossible to be treated. They are:

  • Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
  • Diabetic retinopathy
  • Glaucoma
  • The heterogeneity of inherited eye diseases, which comprise hundreds of diseases that can lead to blindness and all have different genetic Myopia or short-sightedness, which is increasing tremendously, especially in the Asian-Pacific area.

We still don’t exactly know the underlying biological cause of the latter. There is presently no drugs available, and people do not realize the extent of the problem because they are prescribed corrective lenses, so most people can live with it happily in their everyday life. It is subsequently very difficult get any funding for myopia research, because it is a relatively easily managed condition but we still want to find out why this is happening. The problem with AMD is that it has a strong demographic component. As people live increasingly longer, there will also be an increase in AMD over the next century with huge cost implications for our health care systems. Therefore all innovation potential has to strengthen therapeutic strategies such as gene therapy, stem-cell based approaches, neuroprotective strategies, technical devices as implants and an improved drug development pipeline. My feeling is that most pharmaceutical companies are still to hesitant to invest in the latter. We are working on explaining this kind of information to policy makers. On a European level, we have to at least double the budget in terms of research but I am sure that such investment in manpower and research and innovation will more than pay for itself in improved life quality and reduced corrective measures. In addition, we must not forget the avoidable blinding diseases related to poverty and underdeveloped medical patient care.

By what means is the EVI working towards improving the competitiveness of European research?

The Vision Research community in Europe is facing several challenges. Firstly, a general accepted central European institution similar to the publically-funded National Eye Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, is missing in Europe. Secondly, we must urgently ensure a coordinated effort between pre-existing national and European societies and institutions. At present, there are more than two dozen different ophthalmological societies at the European level, most of them dedicated to their specific subspecialty and each with their own separate annual conference. However, we want to promote better communication, coordination and greater synergy so that national and European societies can improve how they work together and most importantly, present themselves on the political level. Until now too many diffuse stakeholders and the global picture of needs and potential paths forward are lost in the myriad of information. For example there is no overreaching joint strategic paper on research priorities in ophthalmology available at present. This is a major competitive disadvantage to other fields of medicine. EVI invited all the presidents and chairpersons of the European and national societies to Venice in order to start a round-table discussion to overcome this unsatisfying situation and to reduce fragmentation. This is important work in progress.

Through assembling the top institutes together with partners from industry and academia, what has EVI achieved thus far?

We have the challenge of presenting the views of the vision scientific research community to European decision makers, so that the policies they implement are adjusted to the needs of the researcher and not bogged down by administrative bureaucracy to achieve the best results. One of the major issues that EVI is facing is increasing the visibility of work that is conducted in this area. This means helping scientists with the dissemination of their results. EVI also has a major role giving feedback to stakeholders at the European level, including the European Commission, European Parliament and the European Council. I believe that it is tremendously important to make sure that people are getting the right information. As a non-profit organisation, EVI works to bring together the stakeholders from all aspects of the vision field, in order to help the present and prospective patients by improving the situation for the research community in all European nations. Our main target is Europe, but this does not exclude exchange and close cooperation on a global scale. Our fruitful strategic partnership with AEVR/NAEVR (Alliance for Eye and Vision Research, U.S.A.) clearly underpins the importance of successful cooperation on a global scale in order to promote vision research and ophthalmology.

How important are the public/private partnerships that the EVI maintains?

We have a very established path in terms of classical public/private partnerships (PPPs). Our aim is to develop and facilitate better and alternative relationships between academia  and the private sector, which are mainly companies. Personally, I believe that a lot of academics still refuse to work with the private sector because they believe it goes against their ethical standpoint. We are very interested in this issue, and are actually running a couple of workshops to find new innovative measures to improve these PPPs. There are a lot of things to be done here and a lot of new ideas have to be developed in this field. Industry players often put 50 per cent or more of their budget into marketing and advertising, thereby limiting the funds available to support their own research or to invest in partnerships with academic institutions. EVI will not be able to help them to sell their products but may be able to help them strengthen collaboration and communication in this area because of our knowledge of who, what and where experiments are being carried out and we have the connections to get these people at one table to talk to each other. 

The European Vision Institute

The European Vision Institute European Economic Interest Grouping (EVI EEIG’) was legally constituted under European law in the late year 2003. The major objectives of EVI are to encourage cross-border cooperation in Vision Research with special emphasis on supporting research, training, health information, dissemination and other programs in the areas of blinding eye diseases, visual disorders, mechanisms of visual function, preservation of sight as well as the special health problems and requirements of the blind and visually disabled.

The members of EVI are vision scientists, research institutes / institutions, universities, private companies and patient organisations. At present, the chairman is Prof. E. Zrenner, Germany, who is supported by the Steering Committee, consisting of Profs. J. Cunha-Vaz, Portugal, P. Luthert, UK, J. Sahel, France, A. Wenzel, Switzerland and N. Pfeiffer, Germany. The Board of Trustees is formed by the Profs. C. Reme, Switzerland, T. van Veen, Sweden and E. Luetjen-Drecoll from Germany.

EVI was not formed for the purpose of making profits for itself. Its function is to carry out activities ancillary to those of its members, including but not restricted to research, technological development, organisation, management, fundraising and publicity pertinent to the defined aims to safeguard the procedures for high-quality Vision Research throughout Europe and worldwide.

Interview by
Alexandra Lovering

Research Media Ltd, Healthcare 2011 Issue 3

Research Media is dedicated to the delivery of science, technology and research dissemination services.

www.research-europe.com | The complete interview

Dr Thomas H Wheeler-Schilling, CEO EVI

More information

For more information about the European Vision Institute EEIG please visit their website.

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