Michael Whitehead

Department of Clinical Neurosciences

I am a final year PhD student in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences. During the first year of my doctoral studies, I worked in Keith Martin's lab to develop a gene therapy for diabetic macular oedema (DMO). DMO is one of the commest cause of eye disease in the working-age population in the developing world, and its prevalence is expected to increase in parallel with obesity rates in these regions. Patients with DMO present with loss of central vision, which is caused by degeneration of a region of their eye called the macula. In DMO, the blood vessels in the eye become leaky and this causes pockets of fluid (oedema) to develop. An increasing body of evidence also implicates oxidative stresses and mitochondrial dysfunction in causing degeneration of neurones in the retina. We sought to develop a gene therapy for DMO that addressed both the vascular and neuronal aspects of the condition, and we generated an exciting proof-of-concept data package to this end. The project led to the creation of a Cambridge-based start-up company, Ikarovec, which raised £2.5M in seed funding in 2020, and currently has six employees and growing! The company plans to initiate IND-enabling studies in 2022 and clinical studies in 2023. If successful, the DMO gene therapy could represent an exciting new treatment option for patients.

After my PhD, I am hoping to pursue postdoctoral studies in the United States with a focus on the development of new platforms for delivering genes to the retina and central nervous system. My long-term objective is to work at the interface between academia and the biotechnology industry as an entrepreneurial scientist, and my aim is to create new platform technologies with medicinal applications.

Other 2021 award winners

Karsten Bach

Lydia Collas

Benjamin Droguet

Tiarnan Doherty

Anujan Poologaindran

Zhaozhi Qian

Andrew Russell

Pedro Vianez

Léa Wenger

Previous award winners

Find out about the winners awarded in previous years: