Passion for eye health leads to new Unit

21 January 2014

Dr Ilva Rupenthal has a passion for using her pharmacy skills to create new eye therapies and follow through with clinical research to perfect how they work in the eye.

She is the first director of the new Buchanan Ocular Therapeutics Unit (BOTU) at the University of Auckland that was launched late last year.  Institutional and philanthropic funding support for her research work in pharmacy and ophthalmology has helped her develop the skills to carry out this work in New Zealand.

The Unit aims to develop and translate ocular therapies research into the clinical setting, to provide teaching to optometry and ophthalmology students, and to promote professional relationships between the two professions.

Dr Rupenthal came to New Zealand as a pharmacy student in 2002 to complete a six-month practical experience internship for her degree from the Philipps University of Marburg in Germany.

Her study project was to help develop a special eye drop to deliver a nucleotide drug to the front of the eye to improve healing after corneal surgery.  After returning to Germany to finish her degree requirements and graduate, Ilva decided to return to New Zealand to continue the project for her PhD.

“It was a tough financial decision because I had a doctoral position lined up in Germany and there, the University pays doctoral students,” she says. “But I loved the project and was fascinated with it as I had eye laser surgery myself in 2001, so I could appreciate the practical application.”

“I tell my doctoral students now that the most important thing for their PhD project is that they like the research and can get excited by it, because otherwise it’s a tough  three to four years.”

Ilva returned to New Zealand in 2004 to begin her doctoral project at the University of Auckland gaining fees bursaries to support her studies, and in 2005, the University of Auckland International Doctoral Scholarship.

“My PhD project was a continuation of my initial project, but instead of using an oil-based eye drop (microemulsion), I was working with in-situ gelling eye drops that when applied as a solution to the surface of the eye turn into a gel which helps the formulation to stay in the front of the eye for longer (than conventional eye drops),” says Dr Rupenthal.

She spent two years in the School of Pharmacy, developing and characterizing the gel eye drops, supervised by Dr Raid Alany.

“For the in vivo work, I was based in ophthalmology (co-supervised by Professor Colin Green) as the department had all the clinical equipment and techniques that I needed to use for the translational work,” she says.  “That translational aspect of the study was what fascinated me most.”

After completing her doctorate and taking a break, Ilva returned to the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences in 2009 as a part-time Senior Tutor in the School of Pharmacy that she combined with a part-time post-doctoral research position in the Department of Ophthalmology.

“It was a great opportunity, but hard splitting my time fifty-fifty between the two departments,” she says.  “I had two Masters students who helped me with the research which was essential.”

In 2010, Ilva was awarded one of the last post-doctoral fellowships from the government’s Foundation of Science, Research and Technology (FoRST). The fellowship gave her three years of a post-doctoral salary and consumables, for her research in ophthalmology.

“For this I had to decide whether to stay in pharmacy working mainly on delivery systems,  or to move into ophthalmology to pursue translational research” she says. “The decision to move to ophthalmology was one of the best I made, because I really enjoy applying my pharmacy knowledge in the clinical setting.”

Her post-doctoral position included supervising masters and doctoral students, as well as a, now steady, stream of German intern students who have followed in her footsteps.

As well as completing all her research milestones, the FoRST fellowship offered the opportunity for leadership training and approved Ilva’s request to do the Outward Bound Navigator Leadership Development course at Anakiwa in March 2013.

“This was an amazing course with both theory and practical sessions, that gave me a totally different perspective on leadership from any classroom based course,” she says.

The Fellowship also resulted in many invitations to conferences and in March last year one of those opportunities resulted in a significant advance for her career.

“I was giving a presentation at the Cornea and Contact Lens Society (CCLS) one-day meeting on what’s new in ocular drug delivery systems and mentioned that I was currently building an ocular drug delivery group in the department, working together with the clinicians,” says Ilva. One of the delegates in the audience happened to be Dr Trevor Gray, a prominent ophthalmologist and philanthropist.

Unknown to Ilva, Dr Gray and Professor Charles McGhee (Professor of Ophthalmology and Director of the New Zealand National Eye Centre) had already been in discussion for more than three years in relation to a major philanthropic donation to the Department of Ophthalmology. Dr Gray intended this donation would enhance research and build teaching across the allied professions of Ophthalmology and Optometry.

“I had been extremely impressed by Ilva’s intellect, hard work ethic and ability to work across several specialities and we were looking for opportunities to underpin her career in the Ophthalmology Department,” says Professor McGhee. “Dr Gray had also been very impressed by Ilva at the CCLS Conference. In our discussions this sparked off the idea of establishing a new unit within ophthalmology, focussing on research and education in the area of Ocular Therapeutics.”

Many months of project planning, development and meetings between Dr Gray and Professor McGhee ensued with key additional input from Ilva, Professor Colin Green and Associate Professor Dipika Patel.  Ultimately these negotiations resulted in a $2.4 million donation from the Buchanan Charitable Trust (Dr Trevor and Dr Caroline Gray) and the establishment of the Buchanan Ocular Therapeutics Unit in the University’s Ophthalmology Department.

In October last year Ilva applied for the position of Director of the Buchanan Ocular Therapies Unit. ”Although we advertised internationally for the Directorship, we could identify no-one with Ilva’s outstanding clinical and research background that she combines so well with a friendly, focussed leadership style,” says Professor McGhee.  “Undoubtedly she will rapidly elevate BOTU to international recognition.” Dr Rupenthal was confirmed as Senior Lecturer and Director at the launch of BOTU in December.

“This is a great opportunity to continue my research to develop ocular therapies,” she says.

Late last year, Ilva was also awarded a $500,000 Sir Charles Hercus Health Research Fellowship from the Health Research Council to investigate ‘stimuli responsive implants’ for the eye which is her major project for the Unit and includes her supervising two doctoral students to support the research.

She also helps with advice on other student projects and works with Dr Julie Lim from Optometry, creating a delivery system for ocular antioxidants.

Dr Rupenthal has several other ocular research projects underway that will have an impact on the delivery of ocular therapeutics and how to assess their efficacy.

“Overall we are hoping to find better methods to deliver ocular drugs more effectively,” she says.

At present she also has a small teaching load in both pharmacy and ophthalmology with the BOTU also planning online courses for community optometrists to learn more about ocular therapeutics.

Ophthalmology HOD Professor Charles McGhee and Associate Professor Dipika Patel have lots of experience teaching ocular therapies in ophthalmology and optometry and will continue doing the majority of that teaching, she says. Professors McGhee and Patel have also been integral to the development and success of the University of Auckland postgraduate Ocular Therapeutics Course.

“We are hoping to get to the forefront of stimuli responsive implants, and I’ll be consulting other disciplines, such as specialists in polymer science, to develop new ideas in this research,” she says.

“I feel very lucky to have my dream job and my dream lifestyle here in New Zealand,” says Dr Rupenthal.


For more information contact:

Suzi Phillips , Media Relations Advisor Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences The University of Auckland Email Phone +64 9 923 7383 or Mob 021416396

Dr Ilva Rupenthal