UCL Institute of Ophthalmology


Spotlight on Professor Omar Mahroo

On the occasion of his Inaugural Lecture on 19 October, we spoke to Omar Mahroo, Professor of Retinal Neuroscience at our institute.

Omar Mahroo

Tell us a bit about your work

The main focus of my work is the retina – investigating how it works in health and disease. The electrical responses generated by cells in the retina in response to light can be recorded non-invasively from the living human eye as the electroretinogram (ERG). My lab uses the ERG, as well as complementary approaches, including retinal imaging, genetic investigation, and, more recently, machine learning, to interrogate human retinal function. We explore how the retina responds to light, adapts to different backgrounds, and how these responses change with age and disease. We are using novel experimental protocols and analyses to explore several areas, including mechanisms of dysfunction in inherited retinal disease and alterations in retinal signalling that appear to drive myopia.  

Why is your research important? 

Retinal diseases are amongst the biggest causes of blindness in the UK and globally. There have been tremendous advances in our ability to image retinal structures with unprecedented resolution. This does not always tell us if the retina is working properly, and the ERG allows us to directly, objectively and quantitatively, evaluate retinal function. By developing novel stimulus protocols and new methods of analysis, the ERG can be used to more precisely investigate specific neuronal processes within the retina. This can help us better understand mechanisms in disease and could aid in the development of more precise ways of assessing the efficacy of novel therapies. Also, myopia (short-sightedness) is increasing throughout the world, and this increases the risk of associated sight-threatening complications. There is now evidence that changes in retinal signalling can drive the development of myopia. ERG investigations can shed light on how this happens, which can, in turn, inform future prevention strategies. Finally, there are similarities between retinal and brain circuitry: exploration of retinal signalling could improve our understanding of abnormalities in certain neurological disorders.  

What inspires you in your work? 

Lots of things! And lots of people! The retina is pretty amazing – capturing the visual world around us, adapting to light environments that vary a billionfold in intensity, processing signals from over 100 million receptors and transmitting the salient features to the brain in the axons of 1.5 million ganglion cells. How can that not be inspiring?! I have been inspired by so many people over the years. As a medical student, I was attracted to neuroscience by Roger Carpenter, who had a wonderfully clear way of thinking about and communicating, physiology. A student of his, two years ahead of me (now a colleague at Moorfields), shared that same ability – Nadeem Ali. In my third year, Trevor Lamb’s awesome lectures on photoreceptors inspired me, and I went on to complete an undergraduate research project, followed by a PhD, followed by post-doctoral work, with him in Cambridge (and then Canberra), and I continue to seek his advice on aspects of phototransduction. I was fortunate to be mentored for several years by Chris Hammond, who nurtured my development in academic ophthalmology. In inherited retinal disease, I have been inspired by Alan Bird, Tony Moore, Andrew Webster, Michel Michaelides, and, from afar, by Ed Stone in Iowa via his online discussions. 

I have been, and continue to be, inspired by so many other mentors and colleagues with whom I have worked (Moin Mohamed, Miles Stanford, Liz Graham, Denise Mabey, David Spalton, Danny Morison, Pirro Hysi, Gordon Plant, Katie Williams, Liz Gavin, Zaid Shalchi, Graham Holder, Tony Robson, Antonio Calcagni, Adnan Tufail, Cathy Egan, Declan Flanagan, Peng Khaw, Pearse Keane, Gavin Arno, Mariya Moosajee, Kamron Khan, Sobha Sivaprasad, Zubin Saihan, Mandeep Sagoo, Jose Pulido, Phil Hykin, Richard Andrews, Carlos Pavesio, Richard Lee, Rola Ba-Abbad and many more whom I have inadvertently, and no doubt unfairly, omitted!). I am also inspired by my students, trainees and fellows – they ask insightful questions that highlight gaps in our knowledge (often just my knowledge!). And I am tremendously inspired by the patients I see, in so many different ways – their fortitude, their accounts of their experiences (which teach me new things about conditions in which I am supposedly an expert), and the reminder of how much research still needs to be done.  

What has been your most memorable career moment so far? 

I’m not sure what my most memorable moment has been, though there are several contenders. One moment that sticks out in my mind is the morning I received my offer from Cambridge to study medicine (I remember the date – 3 January 1996). Another moment is the day I received my Wellcome Trust award in 2017. A more geeky recent moment is when, having been confused for some considerable time by seemingly contradictory ERG data, I realised it all pointed to a change in cone-driven OFF bipolar cell signals (silly me!). There are few things as satisfying as that moment when it all finally fits together (see our recent PNAS paper for details!). Then there are the more embarrassing moments – like when the zip in my trousers broke shortly before I had to meet the head of our institute for the first time… and other moments that need not be mentioned! 

What do you like to do outside work?  

“Outside work? What does that mean?” might have been my answer a few years ago. I have a terrible work-life balance but have been trying to address it lately. I value time spent with my family perhaps more than before. Those two little dudes whom I used to bump into now and again on the odd weekend (my kids) are actually quite fun to be with.  

What book is currently on your bedside table?  

The bedside books belong to my wife, who is by far the more erudite of the two of us. She recently bought me a book called The Northumbrians (probably in response to my many biased remarks on the superiority of those who hail from the northeast), but I haven’t got very far yet.

Professor Omar Mahroo delivered his inaugural Lecture on 19 October. You can now watch the recording. 

Watch Prof Mahroo's Inaugural Lecture