My Europia

October 1, 2009

Myopia is a worldwide public health problem and the underlying mechanisms of its development are still unclear. Currently the key challenge is to attract, train and retain young researchers to the field. The European Research Training Network 'MY EUROPIA' adresses these urgent challenges, by innovative and attractive training and networking possibilities and by the establishment of closer private-public partnership links.

During normal postnatal eye development, refractive errors that may be present in early infancy disappear, resulting in normal-sightedness (emmetropia). This process, referred to as emmetropization, occurs by matching the length of the eye with an impressive precision to the focal length of its cornea and crystalline lens. In the resulting normal-sighted eye, far objects are focused on the retina when accommodation is relaxed. As a result, the accommodation amplitude (active changes in the focal length of the lens) is available to focus from infinity to close.

How the match of eye size to its focal length is regulated and how errors can slip in and produce refractive errors has been the focus of a large number of human and animal research studies over the past 30 years. Using animal models, a lot has been learned, e.g. that emmetropization is in many animal species an active process guided by visual experience,2-6 which seems to be controlled by the retina in chickens.7-9 Optical errors in the peripheral field of view we are normally not aware of seem to affect the growth of the eye and the course of myopia development.10-11

Currently myopia research is split in three different scientific directions and the most urgent questions to be solved are:

1. Which habits, visual experiences and household environments are shared by myopic children compared to kids who didn't become myopic?

2. Which areas (loci) on our chromosomes contain genes linked to myopia development?

3. How does the retina decide that the growth rate of the eye has to be increased or decreased? Which signals linked to eye growth are transmitted from the retina to the sclera (the outer envelope of the eye)? Can eye growth be slowed down by the wear of special ophthalmic lenses? How can the growth of the sclera be controlled by biochemical signals or pharmaceuticals?

A European training platform

Myopia is, undoubtedly, also a European problem. The need for more extensive research efforts has been recognised in Asia, USA and Australia, where the mechanisms underlying myopia development are widely studied. However, until now there has been only a little contribution from Europe, up to now funded exclusively by local governmental institutions.

Given the increasing occurrence of myopia in the industrialised countries, a more bundled approach in Europe was necessary and timely. Moreover, since the future of myopia research lies in the hands of young scientists, it is essential to attract ambitious researchers, at the start of their scientific career, to pursue a path in myopia research in Europe. In order to meet these pressing needs, the Marie Curie Research Training Network (RTN) 'MY EUROPIA' (European Training in Myopia Research; http://www.my-europia.net/), supported by the European Community's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), was set up.

'MY EUROPIA' addresses the above-mentioned urgent challenges in myopia research pursuing three different approaches:

optics: investigation of the effects of defocus in the periphery of the eye on myopia development; identification of naturally occurring peripheral refractive errors and effect of their modulation by special ophthalmic lenses.15-16

genetics: identifying gene loci linked to myopia development by scanning the human genome

biochemical signalling: investigation of the biochemical signalling cascade controlling axial eye growth from the retina to the sclera and finding possibilities to interfere with myopia development in animal models (e.g. by pharmacological interventions).17

Seven partners from four different European countries, with professional competence in the above three research areas, form the 'MY EUROPIA' consortium. Jointly they realise a common goal: to create a European network of expertise in research on myopia, thereby providing an excellent and effective platform for the training of 15 ambitious young researchers with different scientific backgrounds. These young researchers encompass 7 early stage researchers (PhD students) and 8 experienced researchers (postdoctoral fellows), originating from 6 EU member states, 1 associated state and 3 third countries. 'MY EUROPIA's wide spectrum of techniques and questions, unified by the common research topic, will make them qualified to succeed with their own projects in myopia and vision research in their future.

The day-to-day management of this ambitious Research Training Network is shared between its research coordinator and its managing coordinator. This tandem structure optimally meets the needs of expertise in myopia research on the one hand and excellent management skills on the other. Strategic decisions are made by the 'MY EUROPIA' project steering committee, consisting of both coordinators as well as two elected team leaders and two elected young researchers.