Sight Saver Stephanie Watson Nominated for Award

Professor Stephanie Watson has dedicated her life’s work to preserving one of life’s most precious gifts: the gift of sight.

She saves and restores sight for many, and one extremely grateful patient is giving something back in her own way, nominating her for the Care and Compassion Medal in the Pride of Australia Awards 2014.

Professor Watson is an ophthalmic surgeon specialising in cataract, corneal and laser surgery at Sydney Eye Hospital’s new Bicentennial Eye Clinic. She has developed a new stem cell therapy technique.

“The cornea has a very unique architecture to ensure that it remains transparent,” Professor Watson explains.

“When that architecture is disrupted, such as in stem cell failure, it becomes hazy.”

The cornea is the transparent film that covers the front part of the eye, including the iris and pupil. When it gets hazy, it reduces vision, eventually causing blindness.

Professor Watson developed a technique to transfer healthy stem cells onto the cornea. The new stem cells re-populate the damaged area of the cornea so that abnormal tissue won’t grow back.

Sandy O’Brien, one of Professor Watson’s patients, is just one of many who are benefiting from this pioneering work, and to show her gratitude Sandy has nominated her for the prestigious award.

“Stephanie has saved my sight many times – without payment,” Sandy explains.

She has a condition called aniridia, which means that she has no irises in her eyes to control the size of her pupils, which in turn control the amount of light that reaches the retina. The condition requires corneal transplants and is complicated by stem cell failure, which causes abnormal tissue to re-grow.

“Stephanie has performed two corneal transplants on my right eye and one on my left in the past five years,” Sandy explains. “This brought me back from blindness.

It has been a battle to keep the sight but Stephanie has worked hard with stem cell therapy.

In April she gave me a new cornea in my left eye, as it was failing fast. I was using a white stick and had no hope of ever seeing again. But she worked her magic and gave me my sight back.

I now feel normal and able to walk around, get the bus and train and go shopping by myself, without a carer or stick.

No one knows I’m vision impaired as I’m so confident and can now see stairs and go up and down them.”

Professor Watson was invited to appear on the ABC’s New Inventors program in 2009 to share the new stem cell technique. She developed a method of growing corneal stem cells on a contact lens.

When the lens is fitted over the patient’s eye, the stem cells transfer to the cornea. The innovation won the episode and the People’s Choice Award.

Professor Watson was attracted to ophthalmology because of the real impact she could have on people’s lives.

“It struck me you could make a difference. You can change people’s lives, you can restore vision in people who can’t see,” she said.

She has a remarkable body of work behind her, establishing her exceptional talents early in her career.

She was awarded her PhD for developing a new dry eye therapy and wound healing model, and went on to complete clinical trials and publish dozens of articles in peer-reviewed journals. She also holds an international patent for Therapeutic Ocular Surface Medium, a novel therapy for dry eye and corneal ulcer.

But it’s her direct work restoring sight for people of all ages that wins Professor Watson so many hearts. From the little boy whose eye was pecked by a magpie, to the woman with a detached retina caused by an accidental blow to the head, to the man whose sight was destroyed by acid in a workplace accident.

These are the real people and the real lives at the heart of Professor Watson’s brilliant career.

We look forward to updating you on her ground-breaking work in the future.