The vision to improve the sight of others

By John Lewis

She’s a pioneering world expert in eye disease, a Professor of Opthalmology at Melbourne University and a deputy director of the Centre for Eye Research Australia.

A lot of people depend on Professor Robyn Guymer - fellow clinicians, academics and patients, but right now the Shepparton-born specialist is holed up in a one-bedroom apartment in Canberra.

The coronavirus has forced Prof Guymer to return early to Australia from Basel in Switzerland, where she was about to begin a cutting-edge research project into a new way of monitoring the formidably-titled disease - age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Prof Guymer was on day six of a self-isolation fortnight when The News spoke to her.

“I had planned a year’s sabbatical in Switzerland, but a week ago I was told to work remotely so I flew back to Australia while I had the chance,” Prof Guymer said.

The project, sponsored by a large pharmaceutical company, involves developing a mobile phone or computer application to monitor the progress of AMD, which affects more than a million Australians.

“Up until now we’ve asked patients to use a piece of graph paper stuck to their fridge or toilet door to monitor any distortion in their eyesight. With an app we can monitor people remotely,” Prof Guymer said.

“We want to gamify the app – so people can have fun using it like using a computer game,” she said.

The app sounds a lot more pleasant than monthly injections into the eyeball – a pioneering treatment developed by Prof Guymer using a new drug for a particular type of macular degeneration called wet AMD.

“Some people get sudden bleeding in the eye which can result in them losing vision quickly. But injections into the eye have revolutionised the outcome for these people. They would become legally blind very quickly, but the numbers have more than halved since the introduction of these injections,” she said.

“People think it sounds shocking, but if it’s done to save their eyesight, they get used to it,” she said.

Prof Guymer was born in Shepparton to teacher parents Joan and George Guymer.

Her mother was principal of Shepparton High School and later became a Goulburn Valley Base Hospital board member and a Shepparton City Council member.

Joan Guymer today is a resident at Harmony Village Aged Care in Shepparton.

Prof Guymer attend Bourchier St Primary School, Shepparton Girls High School and boarding school in Melbourne from Year 9.

She assumed she would follow her parents’ career path.

“I always thought I would teach,” she said.

But following her elder brother John’s example, she entered medicine, gaining a medical degree at Melbourne University and completing a three-year internship at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

She gained a PhD from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and went on to complete a medical retinal fellowship in London at the Moorfields Eye Hospital with renowned ophthalmologist Professor Alan Bird.

She said specialisation in retinal disease had allowed her to make a difference in the lives of people of all ages.

“It’s an important area – people’s vision – the surgery is very intricate and the eye can often help determine the cause of other general diseases – so it’s had a bit of everything in it,” she said of her career.

She said about 1.4 million Australians are estimated to have the early signs of AMD.

“It’s the most common cause of eye disease and poor vision for people over 50. One in seven people will have some form of macular degeneration, and one in seven of those will lose vision as a result. The sooner you can treat it, the better,” she said.

In 2016 she was awarded the National Health and Medical Research Council’s prestigious Elizabeth Blackburn Fellowship which has allowed her to continue her vital research into AMD.

In June 2018, Prof Guymer was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to medicine in the field of ophthalmology.

Today she works as a clinician, an academic and a researcher with a busy schedule which includes working at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital and running a private practice in Melbourne.

In 2018 Prof Guymer appeared in The Ophthalmologist magazine’s Power List of the 100 Most Influential People in Ophthalmology across the world.

Alongside her citation she is quoted: “The amazing research advances made in the past decade for neovascular AMD inspires me to think that in one lifetime it is possible to make enormous advances that influence the quality of life of many millions of people now and into the future.”