Chewing gum test could prevent blindness and save lives

Researchers from the University of Sydney’s Save Sight Institute have reported a simple ‘chewing gum’ test that could be the key to identifying and treating Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA), a disease that causes blindness, strokes and death.

Researchers from the University of Sydney’s Save Sight Institute have reported a simple ‘chewing gum’ test that could be the key to identifying and treating Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA), a disease that causes blindness, strokes and death.

GCA is caused by inflammation of the lining of arteries in the head, most commonly in the temples, which restricts arterial blood flow. Symptoms can include headaches, scalp tenderness, jaw pain and vision problems. GCA is most commonly observed among people aged 50 and older.

The condition can be hard to diagnose because early symptoms are often subtle and found in a range of other diseases. For example, claudication of the jaw muscles (cramping pain caused by inadequate arterial blood flow) is a specific indicator of GCA, but there is no current clinical test to differentiate it from other causes of jaw pain. GCA patients with jaw claudication have a higher risk of permanent visual loss, but this symptom isn’t commonly reported because many people favour soft food as they age.

Save Sight Institute researchers have developed a straightforward ‘chewing gum’ test designed to unmask this important jaw symptom. By chewing gum at a rate of one chew per second the test can reproduce a patient’s telltale pain, prompting further investigation with a blood test and an arterial biopsy to confirm diagnosis.

In a letter published in this month’s New England Journal of Medicine, researchers presented two cases where the chewing gum test allowed clinicians to better characterise jaw pain, confirm a diagnosis and successfully treat both patients.

“GCA is one of the most common causes of blindness in older people,” says Dr Peter McCluskey, Director of the Save Sight Institute and a professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of Sydney. “Not only can it send you blind, but it can kill you. It also can affect vision extremely quickly. If one eye is already involved, around one third of people go blind in the other eye within a day, another third within a week and the remaining third within a month. It’s a very serious condition which requires rapid and correct diagnosis.”

The research team is doing further research to validate the chewing gum test, and will incorporate dentistry, rheumatology and nuclear medicine specialist researchers.

Fast facts: factors can raise the risk of developing giant cell arteritis

  • Age: Giant cell arteritis affects adults only, and rarely those under 50. Most people with this condition first experience warning signs between the ages of 70 and 80
  • Sex: Women are about twice as likely to develop the condition than men
  • Race and geographic region: Giant cell arteritis is most common among white-skinned people from northern Europe
  • Polymyalgia rheumatic: Having polymyalgia rheumatica puts you at increased risk of developing giant cell arteritis
  • Family history: The condition sometimes runs in families.

Musicus Medicus to Save Sight

The Save Sight Institute was honoured to be chosen by the NSW Doctors Orchestra as its chosen charity at Sunday’s magnificent musical journey ‘Around The World in 80 Minutes’.

The concert featured an orchestra of 87 doctors and medical students from New South Wales, as well as esteemed pianist Simon Tedeschi, who performed Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.

This year also featured 114 beautiful vocals from Hummingsong Women’s Choir.

One of our long-term patients Michelle Urqhart was a featured solo, performing a double concerto with Dr Andrew Kennedy.

It was a truly impressive afternoon of music, as the orchestra performed under the direction of conductor, Dr. David Banney, winner of the 1995 ABC-Westfield Australian Young Conductor of the Year Award.

Some of our youngest SightFighters were on-hand to sell programme booklets for a gold coin donation and did a wonderful job representing Save Sight Institute.

PhD student awarded best lens poster at ARVO

Congratulations to Daisy Shu, international awardee. 

With over 6000 presentations and over 11,000 registrants from more than 75 countries at the recent Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) 2016 meeting in Seattle, WA, USA, we are proud to announce that one of our PhD students, Daisy Shu, from the Lens Research laboratory, took home the title of best poster for the Lens section.

Daisy presented a poster on her research entitled ‘Bone morphogenetic protein (BMP)-7 modulates TGFß-induced epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) of lens epithelial cells.

Her work was selected for the Members-In-Training (MIT) Poster Award judging session, where she presented to experts in the field and won the top prize in this section.

This is the second time that a student from the Lens Research Laboratory has won this award in as many years.

According to head of the lens team, Professor Frank Lovicu “This is a fantastic achievement for Daisy, her laboratory, and great recognition for our Institute”.

ARVO enables global connections in vision research. More than ever, successful science requires strong global connections – among researchers, across disciplines and between generations. ARVO brings together the worlds top eye and vision researchers and clinicians to explore cutting-edge basic and clinical science. Attendees discuss the challenges faced in bridging gaps in scientific knowledge, creating effective collaborations and keeping bright young minds engaged in research careers.

How I see the world

Ever wondered what being vision-impaired actually means?

Are you one of the many people who think that someone is either totally blind or is able to see everything?

To answer your questions, there are literally thousands of different types of visual-impairments that can leave the affected person classed as legally-blind. These eye conditions can be congenital, degenerative and late-onset all of which fall within that “grey area” of the general population who assume you simply have sight or none at all.

For example, I compete against other visually-impaired athletes in my chosen sport and as a requirement must race with a guide. However, when I train I can manage this on my own as my central vision is still very good and better than most people. So when I tell someone that I am legally-blind they think that because I can “see” them that I must have normal vision.

The picture you can see (no pun intended!) gives you one way of understanding what I can actually see. The black circles covering my eyes, which are part of my visual field/periphery test completed by Professor John Grigg (ophthalmologist) at Save Sight Institute as part of my sport/disability classification, are supposed to be completely white for people with normal vision.

The white parts that you can see, surrounded by black, is what is left of my remaining vision. Some people might think this is a scary or tragic thing to deal with, but the way I look at it is I am lucky to have any functional/useful sight to work with.

What I hope to gain from sharing this picture is the opportunity to educate as many people as possible that not all disabilities are visible, so please share this post so more people can understand too. Lastly, not every legally-blind person needs a guide dog or a walking cane, and most of us are very capable at just getting on with it and at leading a life no different to a person with full sight.

By Jonathan Goerlach

Boost this year’s tax deductions

Tax time is fast approaching, and now is the time to start thinking about making a gift to support a cause or organisation that is close to your heart.

Tax time is fast approaching, and now is the time to start thinking about making a gift to support a cause or organisation that is close to your heart.

All donations to the Save Sight Institute over $2 are tax-deductible, and go towards helping fund much needed equipment, resources, infrastructure and resource support.

Researchers at the Save Sight Institute are leading the way when it comes to finding new and improved ways of preserving and restoring vision. With your help we can do more. 

Research relies 100% on grants, donations and bequests.

To help fund our research, please visit our online giving page on the University of Sydney’s website and choose the area of research that you would like to support. Click here to donate online or call (02) 9382 7306.

If you would like to discuss remembering the Save Sight Institute in your will please contact us.

We are also looking for corporate supporters, please contact us if you would like to discuss.