Dr Rosie Gilbert is a Clinical Fellow and PhD research student at UCL Institute of Ophthalmology. She coordinates the Eating for Eye Health project, which won the NCCPE Engage Award 2016 in the Individual-led Projects category.
Dr Rosie Gilbert’s grandmother is among many thousands of people to have fallen victim to age-related macular degeneration - one of the leading causes of untreatable blindness.
It was this first-hand experience, together with a desire to go that extra yard to help patients, which gave ophthalmologist Dr Gilbert the inspiration to launch the award-winning project, Eating for Eye Health.
Age-related macular degeneration
According to the Macular Society, dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is believed to affect more than 600,000 people in the UK alone. It progressively damages the central vision, and the hard message for patients is that – unlike the ‘wet’ form of the condition - there are no medical treatment options available.
Dr Gilbert, a clinical research fellow at University College London is all too familiar with how devastating this degenerative eye condition can be:
“When my own grandmother was diagnosed I really saw a huge change in her”, she recalled. “My grandmother had been an avid viewer of Asian soap operas. But she became more and more isolated, and later became unable to read the Bible, something which she loved doing.”
Originally from Kerala, South India, the whole of idea of connecting with patients through food resonated with Dr Gilbert’s past. “I come from a culture where food is such a huge part of life. It’s about connections, memories.”
Support from UCL’s public engagement team
When Dr Gilbert found herself in a UCL “Train and Engage” brainstorming group discussing ideas for public engagement, one idea instantly sprung to mind. She had been working with patients who had been diagnosed with AMD, and felt somewhat helpless that there was nothing she could offer once the diagnosis had been made. “Patients left with a sense of having no support”, she said. “They also asked more ‘existential’ questions, about…whether they could have done anything to have protect themselves from the condition, for example. But scientific evidence about the environmental aspects of illnesses such as this is fairly limited.”
Dr Gilbert’s involvement with the UCL brainstorm clearly inspired her, helping to reveal the potential power of engagement. She said: “Public engagement in medicine is not something we’re taught at all. I was very ill-equipped to deal with it in fact at that time as I hadn’t had any training.”
She is full of praise for the UCL engagement team particularly Laura Cream and Tadhg Caffrey. “They’ve been absolutely brilliant in taking the project on. Without them it would not have been so successful.”
Can antioxidants help?
They talked, in the UCL brainstorm session, about how a large American clinical trial (the AREDS study) had suggested that antioxidant supplements may help protect against the progression of dry age-related macular degeneration. This could mean that a diet high in certain antioxidants may help to protect the retina from age-related damage, for example, from environmental stressors, such as ultra-violet light. Her idea was to bring together patients for a cookery class which encouraged them to cook and eat the right kind of foods.
“Limited scientific research suggests that foods high in antioxidants - colourful foods such as butternut squash, kale, broccoli and orange and yellow peppers – may be of benefit to people in slowing the progression of AMD”, said Dr Gilbert.
The result was a focus group with around ten patients to develop the idea, followed by a lively event at a community kitchen where patients cooked and ate their ‘rainbow’ of richly-coloured, high-antioxidant food items.
Seeing a problem and tackling it
Dr Gilbert was praised by judges in the 2016 Engage Competition led by NCCPE as “an example of a clinical researcher seeing a problem and tackling it – rather than writing it up”. She is highly satisfied that she has been able to offer more, beyond diagnosis. She added: “Unfortunately, we can’t offer something to bring back their sight. But it shows people we care, and introduces them to others going through similar symptoms.”
On a wider point, Dr Gilbert sees massive benefits for academics in participating in public engagement. “When we become more specialist in certain areas there is a danger that we can lose touch with the public. I thought people weren’t interested in the research we’re doing in universities…but they very much are!”
Another similar project is planned for later in the year, and the nutritional message has spread, as a result of publicity, to other groups and community kitchens.
But does the nutritional approach make a difference to eye health. Does it work? For some...maybe, just maybe...
“I have since heard from a patient who said she had eaten more blueberries - and she felt the condition had at least stabilised.”