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Research spotlight – how our scientists tackled blindness

Diabetes was once the leading cause of blindness in the UK amongst people of working age. It isn’t any more. And that’s thanks to a piece of research we funded in the 1980s.

Tackling blindness

Eye screening on the move

Shocked by the amount of sight loss in people with diabetes in Newcastle, Professor Roy Taylor began looking into how it could be reduced. His plan to beat blindness began in the back of a second hand ambulance in 1986. 

Before this point retinal screening could only be carried out by eye specialists, with expensive equipment. This meant it was almost impossible to screen everyone at risk.

But Professor Taylor took eye screening on the move. He set up a retinal camera in the ambulance to photograph people’s eyes and for the next three year his team drove all over Tyneside, screening up to 48 people a day. They would analyse results on the spot to see if there were any early signs of diabetic eye disease (known as retinopathy).

Photographing eyes
A person with diabetes having their eyes photographed

Being able to treat any damage early reduces the chance of people losing any vision. And by making the service mobile, more people could be screened and referred for treatment before it was too late.

Going national

The results showed that this eye screening method for people with diabetes was far more practical and effective than other methods. So we supported Professor Taylor to expand his fleet of mobile screening units across the UK. Once again the results were positive, proving photographic screening worked on a large scale.

Expanding the fleet

Buoyed by the evidence, we campaigned for a national eye screening programme for people with diabetes, which was rolled out in 2002.

Today every single person with diabetes should have access to annual eye screening. As a result early signs of damage can be picked up and treated early, meaning better vision for people with diabetes.

"Losing eyesight can be avoided if retinopathy is caught early and treated. Easier, more accessible screening methods allow us to do just that. With the support of Diabetes UK, we’re seeing the impact of this work on the lives of people with diabetes across the world.”

Professor Roy Taylor, eye screening pioneer

In 2009, Newcastle became the first place in the UK where diabetes is no longer the leading cause of blindness in the working age population. That effect has now spread across the UK.

This is just one of the incredible transformations in diabetes car our research has been behind. Find out how, thanks to your support, our scientists have changed the lives of millions of people with diabetes (PDF) across the world.

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