Following on from the discovery that the Ebola virus can live on in a patient’s eyeballs long after they’re “cured” Professor Smith’s work proves cat faeces and raw meat can similarly lodge nasties in the eyes.
And they’re not the only source of danger.
While pregnant women have long known that cat faeces and undercooked meat are a risk to their unborn children, Professor Smith says the parasite behind these infections, toxoplasmosis, can be contracted in many other ways – and once you have it, there’s no getting rid of it.
Infecting one-third of the world’s population, and at least one in five Australians, toxoplasma most commonly leads to uveitis, a serious inflammation of the retina that can lead to permanent vision loss.
Professor Smith’s research will focus on designer drugs that target the proteins that cause inflammation. These are a revolutionary 21st Century treatment, but since the proteins are also needed for the normal immune system, people who take these drugs are at risk for serious infections.
"If you understand how a virus or bacteria is causing an illness then you are one step ahead of it in terms of starting to develop a treatment for it," she said.
Professor Smith’s research will develop a different drug approach that works by only partially blocking the proteins, so the immune response can function normally and there is no risk of infection.
Professor Smith is a strong advocate for medical research across the globe, most recently in her role as President of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, the largest global society for eye and vision research, with an 80-year history and 12,500 members in 75 countries.
The recent funding round of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) saw $565,966 awarded to Professor Justine Smith for a project titled “Regulation of ICAM-1 Expression in Human Retinal Endothelial Cells”. Professor Smith is an eye specialist who treats uveitis – a sight threatening inflammation inside the eye.
Through her research at the College of Medicine and Public Health, important discoveries on the mechanisms of infectious uveitis have been made, while laboratory research and clinical trials led by her have established the use of biologic drugs to reduce vision loss from non-infectious uveitis.