Should one invest in basic and translational research? - Instituto Oftalmológico Fernández Vega
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The activity of the Fundación de Investigación Oftlamológica (FIO – Eye Research Foundation), a private entity devoted to the study of the basis of the diseases that compromise vision (…)

The activity of the Fundación de Investigación Oftlamológica (FIO – Eye Research Foundation), a private entity devoted to the study of the basis of the diseases that compromise vision, began in 2009. Its aim is to provide results as soon as possible to the medical and surgical activity of the ophthalmologists. Ever since, and in only five years, over 40 research projects have been published, two patents have been obtained and it has helped patients gain access to two products that have been launched to the market. One of them is a prosthesis that prevents patients with certain pathologies from undergoing corneal transplant; the other is a regenerative eye-drop that only in the Instituto Oftalmológico Fernández Vega (IOFV) benefits 800 patients every year. Moreover, teaching activities have been consolidated through eight high-specialisation training programs for professionals in the fields of ophthalmology and vision sciences, a program of on-going training and a system for the training of researchers.

The launch of the FIO was Professor Luis Fernández-Vega’s personal venture; he’s the medical director of the centre and majority shareholder. The Fundación María Cristina Masaveu Peterson supported his initial idea from the very start; it was subsequently followed by other foundations (BBVA, Rafael del Pino, Ramón Areces, Caja Astur, Caja Rural, La Caixa, Telefónica) and patients’ donations. Moreover, since 2009 the FIO has received competitive regional, national and European grants, as well as grants from the USA and the industry sector. Thanks to all this, the Foundation employs 20 highly qualified workers and its annual budget is close to 1.5 million euros.

Together with the initial boost of the Fernández-Vega family, other key factors that have helped the project to become a consolidated reality are as follows:

The relationship between basic, translational and clinical researchers: enabling the transfer of the day-to-day problems of the practice to the lab and the discoveries of the lab to the practice.

The framework research and teaching agreement with the Universidad de Oviedo, by which both institutions relate to collaborate in teaching and research activities. Research projects have been conducted with mechanical engineers – to help in the biomechanics of the cornea -, with microbiologists – to detect new approaches in the diagnosis and treatment of ocular infectious diseases – and with chemists – to collaborate in determining metals in ocular proteins. With regards to the area of teaching, the future doctors as well as specialists and researchers benefit from the clinical activity and labs to study at Universidad de Oviedo.

Relationship with the biotechnological environment. Businesses, public and private research centres and private practices have been created as a consequence of the transfer of knowledge generated at Universidad de Oviedo to its immediate entourage; the FIO can collaborate with these so that they can – while still performing the activity in which they excel – help us address unresolved problems in the eye. As an example we can mention the flagship of

Universidad de Oviedo, the Instituto Universitario de Oncología del Principado de Asturias (Oncology University Institute of the Principality of Asturias), which has trained researchers from centres such as the Instituto de Medicina Oncológica y Molecular de Asturias (Imoma – Oncology and Molecular Medicine Institute of Asturias) or has been involved in the genesis of genetic diagnostic businesses, such as Dreamgenics – companies with which the FIO collaborates. Another example is the collaboration with Dropsens – created by research chemists in the Universidad de Oviedo -, to develop sensors to monitor advanced therapy products or diagnostic sensors.

With regard to technological centres, the FIO collaborates with the Instituto de Materiales de Asturias (Itma – Material Institute of Asturias) in the application of solar energy to the prevention and treatment of eye diseases, and with the Fundación Prodintec in 3D additive manufacturing. With all these agents one can build a value chain for ophthalmological applications.

But, how does this benefit the company that has directly promoted the FIO? First of all, because it is the means for a services company such as the Instituto Oftalmológico Fernández-Vega to return to society what society has given it, enabling those patients who entrust their eye care to The Vega’s to come to a centre with over 125 years of excellent medical and surgical prevention and care, guaranteed by constant innovation and by the transfer of the results of research and on-going training.

Secondly, having ophthalmologists, optometrists, nurses, mathematical biologists and vocational students working with us enables us to select and subsequently offer the best of them the opportunity to become part of our team, thus guaranteeing the generational renewal of the institution.

Thirdly, we have former students in different centres throughout Spain that see us as a benchmark hospital where one can give solutions to patients with complex problems.

Lastly, understand that we haven’t done everything right. With five years of experience, we now know which line of basic research has to be strengthened and where the greatest efforts need to lie to be more efficient and to surface in a very competitive global market.

To sum up: is private investigation within companies worth it? It is, to offer new products for the same market, to open new markets, to channel internal entrepreneurs, to be up to date on the state-of-the-art in our field. If one enters this activity, one will find synergies with the immediate entourage and will profit from short and mid-term direct and indirect benefits.

This reminds me of those signs that some cars sport: if you think that education is expensive, try ignorance. Is the commitment to training worth it? Anyone who thinks that training is expensive should try not doing so.

Jesús Merayo Lloves

Ophthalmology Professor at Universidad de Oviedo and Research Director of the Fundación de Investigación Oftalmológica of the Instituto Oftalmológico Fernández-Vega