Take 5: with Julian Jackson

Julian Jackson

In this month’s Take 5 feature, we talk to Julian Jackson, the founder of sight loss social enterprise VisionBridge…

An advocate for eye research, campaigner, fundraiser and facilitator of development funding for spin-outs and start-ups in healthcare provision, Julian Jackson founded VisionBridge in 2016. Prior to that, he was director of development and then senior adviser to sight loss charity, Fight for Sight.

Q. How did you first become involved with championing progress in eye research?

A. I lost my sight completely in 2010 to retinitis pigmentosa, a retinal inherited disease for which there is currently no treatment or cure. I soon realised that any hope of restoring my sight or preventing sight loss and treating eye disease amongst millions of others around the globe lay with eye research. I believe that eye research remains one of the most underfunded areas of medical research and the best kept secret in the UK.

In light of this, I hope my advocacy for eye research will help to raise the general level of awareness around sight loss, introduce everyone to this incredible scientific world of discovery and innovation and encourage people to financially support eye research.

Q. What is your mission in the short and long term?

A. My mission is to spread the good news about eye research amongst eye health professionals and the public and, in turn, improve access to technologies and treatments for patients about which they have been hitherto unaware.

World class researchers are fighting to improve our understanding of the origins, patterns and processes of eye disease, detection and diagnosis and treatments and to develop rehabilitative technologies that improve the quality of life for patients. Understanding the patterns and processes of disease is a fundamental prerequisite for delivering sustainable, effective and cost-efficient treatments, providing long-term benefits to patients and cost savings to the healthcare system.

The ability to identify the drivers of disease and new therapeutic targets create opportunities for earlier and preventative therapeutic interventions and alternative treatments, predict the onset and rate of disease progression and gauge the way in which individual patients may react to treatments, are all crucial weapons in the fight against sight loss.

Alongside this, developments in detection and diagnosis not only support improved prognosis, evidence-based management of patients and the development of biomarkers, but also help to validate and refine earlier, targeted therapeutic interventions alongside a cheaper and swifter diagnostic regime.

Q. What important work is ongoing in eye research?

A. Eye research constantly questions the efficacy of standard treatment approaches as it remains clear that not all treatments suit every patient. Indeed, there is always an imperative to create treatments which are better targeted, less invasive, longer lasting and require less applications in the fight to prevent further sight loss, stabilise conditions and ultimately restore sight.

Work is also ongoing to treat patients without the current unpleasant side-effects and surgical shortcomings. The breadth and depth of eye research continues to grow in the treatment arena, reflected in the research into stem cell and gene therapies, drug treatments and drug delivery, pharmacogenetics and personalised medicine, light, x-ray and other non-invasive therapies, antibodies, neuro-protection, the innovation behind surgical instruments and techniques that are safer, faster, more accurate and less invasive.

Q. What are the main threats to people living with sight loss, or facing sight loss in later life?

A. With all this progress, sight loss remains a clear and present danger. Numbers of those with avoidable and unavoidable sight loss are projected to double and the financial, practical, emotional and psychological impacts continue to be acutely felt. Many barriers to employment, leisure activities and travel remain in place to those with visual impairment.

As eye health professionals would agree, this is a time when our eyes remain under increasing attack from a wide range of viral, fungal and bacterial infections as well as neurodegenerative, systemic, auto-immune and inherited diseases. Other factors such as injury and trauma, lifestyle choices, environment, mutant genes and ageing also play their part in sight loss.

Against this backdrop, the opportunities to make a significant difference to people’s lives have never been greater. This is a critical time when the eye research community in the UK can harness the revolution in biological sciences, engineering and computing amongst other disciplines to prevent and cure the causes of vision loss and I want to help in making this happen.

Q. What more can be done within the voluntary, research and eyecare profession sectors?

A. I would encourage the voluntary sector to be less risk averse, to reach out beyond their comfort zones and to be more imaginative in their fundraising activities. We need to create and support initiatives like the Big Blind Walk (www.bigblindwalk.com) which Mike Ockenden and his team so generously supported.

Eye research needs to adopt a profile that is more noticeable, an image that is more recognisable and a language that is more understandable and a context which is more inspirational. We must develop narratives and platforms that will engage and enthuse all eye health professionals and other healthcare providers and potential donors. We need to highlight the power and potential of eye research in giving sustainable solutions, hope, independence, mobility, financial independence and emotional well-being to those wrestling with sight loss.

We must more effectively highlight how eye research can deliver quantifiable and beneficial changes to the delivery of eyecare in the UK. For example, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, biomarkers, personalised and minimally invasive treatments, novel drug delivery systems, improved knowledge of eye health and self-monitoring and the technological advances in primary care patient support, can reduce waiting times and pressures in secondary care and greatly improve access for those who are a priority.

I invite all eye health professionals to embrace all these profound advancements in eye research and not to leave it to the voluntary sector or eye clinics to advise their patients about the options available for treatment or rehabilitation. Read the latest bi-annual report published by VisionBridge, ‘Eye research – an equal partner’, providing a snapshot of the wide range of ongoing eye research activities and highlighting the link between laboratory work and positive clinical outcomes for the visually impaired, here.

Contact Julian Jackson by email julian@visionbridge.org.uk or by calling 07773 800073.