“I do research to help people see”

A lab visit to Prof. Nicole Eter / interview series by the Cells in Motion Cluster of Excellence
Ophthalmologist Prof. Nicole Eter is a member of the Cells in Motion Cluster of Excellence and Director of the Department of Ophthalmology at Münster University Hospital.
© Witte / Wattendorf

Prof. Eter, what scientific topic are you working on right now?

My focus in ophthalmology is on the retina. We work in a number of teams to investigate retinal diseases, looking in particular at those in which vessels are formed in an uncontrolled fashion. One of these diseases, for example, is age-related macular degeneration, in which the central retina – the area where sight is most focused – undergoes changes. We also look at changes resulting from vein occlusions in diabetic retinopathy and in retinopathy of preterm infants. In our working groups we carry out not only lab studies but also clinical studies, with researchers and clinicians working hand in hand. Our aim is to find out what mechanisms are at work when diseases occur, but in the longer term we are also looking for new forms of treatment. For age-related macular degeneration, for example, the therapeutic options have made enormous progress over the past few years – but they are still very time-consuming and stressful for patients.

What characterizes you personally as a scientist?

I think above all it’s the pleasure I get from my work, as well as wanting to advance ophthalmology through new insights. I work as a doctor as well as a researcher, which to a certain extent is a double burden, of course. But I don’t see my job as work because I love the variety it entails. On the one hand, I have contact with patients, who often come to me over a period of years, and this sometimes leads to close ties on a personal level. And on the other hand, I can switch over in the afternoons and be a researcher looking to understand the mechanisms behind the diseases and thus help patients even more in the long term. Ultimately, I do research to help people see.

What is your greatest aim as a scientist?

I’d like to make a contribution to some valuable insight and to new treatment, for example by discovering an important signalling pathway between proteins in retinal cells – from the initial idea, followed by a lot of studies, to a new form of clinical treatment. This sort of thing only happens in very rare cases, of course – but I would at least like to make an important contribution.

What’s your favourite toy for research – and what is it able to do?

The technical progress being made in imaging helps us a lot. For over a year now there has been a new system that’s currently my favourite toy – optical coherence tomography angiography, or OCTA. We can use it to look at blood vessels without having to inject any dye or contrast agent. The device scans the retina with a laser beam and checks to see whether anything is moving or not. This allows us to observe the blood-flow in the vessels and to see where new vessels are forming – which helps us to recognize at an earlier stage if a patient has poor blood-flow in certain areas of the retina. What we want to find out is how far this is connected with later age-related macular degeneration or other vascular diseases of the retina.

Can you remember your happiest moment as a scientist?

At the beginning of any researcher’s career, a particularly happy moment is certainly when the first paper is accepted – I was certainly on a high when that happened to me. When our first application for a German Research Foundation project was accepted we also had a very jolly evening (laughs). Nowadays, moments of happiness for me are when younger colleagues have the same successes and I can watch them becoming better and better.

And what was your biggest frustration?

You’re always disappointed, of course, when you have a paper or an application rejected. In ophthalmology there is a high-impact journal with a very high rejection rate – and it can be very frustrating when you’ve been poring over something for a long time and at the end you have a “baby” that you’re proud of – but other people find your baby, in a figurative sense, ugly. But that’s all part of the world of research. There is also frustration in everyday hospital work, of course – for example, if a certain treatment doesn’t work for a patient, or a patient’s sight doesn’t improve despite a successful operation.

Which scientific phenomenon still regularly fascinates you today?

For me, the eye is still a fascinating organ, and there is still a lot of research to be done on it. What I find incredibly fascinating at the moment is the progress being made in treatment as a result of interaction between human ingenuity and technical aids. Take the retina implant, for example: you can place a chip on the retina which passes on impulses through the optic nerve. As a result, patients can at least see outlines and recognize figures. Just twenty years ago people wouldn’t have thought that that would one day be possible.

What big scientific question would you like to have an answer to?

Within my own field of work, it’s the question “How can age-related macular degeneration be prevented?” What I always find really fascinating are processes which might be able to stop cells ageing or degenerating. If we knew how to keep certain systems in the body going, that would grab everyone’s attention. After all, it would be something that would interest not only people with diseases, but everyone growing naturally older.

How much artistry, creativity and craftsmanship is there in your scientific work?

Craftsmanship is part and parcel of our daily work – especially when we’re performing operations. There’s also a lot of creativity in our everyday research. Let me give you an example: for two years now we’ve been studying retinopathy of prematurity in mice. This is very difficult – the mice haven’t yet opened their eyes, but we want to examine them. It’s a pretty fiddly job for us because we want to end up with good images of the retina. We change the mouse’s positions, for instance, combine various methods or adapt our equipment by constructing an adapter, for example.