Beauty in the Eye

A Diamond user's findings may lead to new treatments for eye disease and they're beautiful to boot

Marta Ugarte: Marta Ugarte is an ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital
Marta Ugarte: Marta Ugarte is an ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital
Occasionally science and art collide to create something that is at once beautiful and practical. Marta Ugarte is an ophthalmologist based at Moorfields Eye Hospital, and she’s using Diamond to research retina function. Her results are eye-catching images of swirling shapes and colours, and the data she’s gathered could lead to better treatments for eye disease.
Marta is specifically interested in retinal metal content. Having metal in your eye sounds like it would be pretty nasty whatever the size, but actually trace metals are essential for the eye to function. Iron, zinc and copper are all essential elements for cell biology in the eye. Their action is controlled by the eye’s cells, which regulate the concentration and quantity of the metals to optimise their activity.
But sometimes, as the result of age or disease, the cells cease to regulate the metals; this leads to the metals becoming toxic. If enough of the metals become toxic, it can cause people to go blind.
A slice of retina studied at Diamond. Different metals are highlighted in different colours.
A slice of retina studied at Diamond. Different metals are highlighted in different colours.
Marta wants to find ways of preventing blindness caused by toxic metals, and the first step is understanding why and how they become toxic in the first place. Marta uses a technique called X-ray florescence to study the eye; this technique involves exposing a sample to X-ray light and looking for the energy released when the rays hit certain elements of the sample. X-ray florescence is particularly handy for determining the elemental composition of a sample – so you can study something like a drop of rainwater and determine the different elements and chemicals inside.

Marta uses X-ray florescence to determine the concentration of metals in the retina and identify how they relate to the functioning of the eye. The tiny beam on Diamond’s microfocus spectroscopy beamline I18 is thousands of times smaller than a pinhead – this minute beam allows a remarkable level of precision, enabling Marta to look at each individual layer of the eye. Using Diamond, the intrepid ophthalmologist has pinpointed the distribution of different metals in different parts of the eye, finding that each element has its natural home.
Knowing where the metals should be when all is well is helping Marta to learn more about why they get out of whack and what happens as a result. But it’s not pretty; during her time at Diamond, Marta has had to study dozens of rat eyes, using the entire eye as a sample. What is pretty is the result – Marta’s images from I18 show each metallic element in the retina indicated by a striking splash of colour. These impressive results reveal that when the body is weakened by age or disease, our cells become less capable of controlling these powerful metals, so they move about, straying from their natural homes in the various layers of the eye. The result is impaired vision and, eventually, blindness; but now that we understand more about what this process looks like, we’re one step closer to preventing it.
Marta is well placed to recognise the impact of her research. As an ophthalmologist, Marta splits her time between the hospital and the lab. “This position affords me a unique perspective”, she says. “I understand how this problem is affecting patients’ daily lives, and that drives me to work even harder to find a solution. It’s demanding, difficult work, but it’s ultimately fulfilling.”
Thanks to Marta and her tireless commitment to bettering the lives of her patients, we’re inching ever closer to new preventative treatments for blindness. Her vivid elemental maps of the retina will potentially help millions of people around the world to keep their vision, and that’s science at its best and most beautiful.