Alumna Profile

Professor Deborah Sweeney

Debbie graduated from UNSW in 1980 and received her PhD also from UNSW in 1992. It was during her second year of her Bachelor degree that the direction of the rest of her career in Optometry was set.

David Pye and a PhD student, Steve Zantos came to a lecture to talk to students about participating in a Professor Deborah Sweeneycontact lens study that was being conducted at the Cornea and Contact Lens Research Unit (CCLRU). She was one of several class mates who signed up for the experience, which included wearing PMMA lenses for seven hours.For the next three years, Debbie was an enthusiasitc participant in a whole range of studies, was found to  have a great endothelial “bleb” response and also started working part-time as a research assistant at the CCLRU. It was a particularly exciting period at the CCLRU: George Mertz, John McNally, Desmond Fonn and Sue Green were active and the many studies which lead to the Holden-Mertz criteria, which determined the minimum oxygen transmissibility required to avoid excessive levels of corneal oedema during daily and extended contact lens wear, were completed.

Upon graduation, Debbie joined the CCLRU and was part of the remarkable growth phase of the unit. Under Brien Holden’s leadership, eminent international researchers were attracted to the unit and long term collaborations were established. She was fortunate to work with Ken Polse from Berkeley and the Finnish Ophthalmologist Antti Vannas on a number of studies designed to assess the effects of corneal surgery on corneal swelling responses.During the early 80s Debbie had the opportunity to work with Antti Vannas at the Ophthalmic Department of the Helsinki University Central Hospital.A quick six week trip turned into a 12 months stay with some great opportunities including working with patients with Horner’s syndrome, as well as those undergoing a range of corneal surgical procedures. These studies formed part of her PhD work that focussed on understanding the cornea and its response to corneal surgery.  

Helsinki was just an overnight ferry ride and day drive from Gothenburg in Sweden where Klas Nilsson’s practice, Contacta, was located. Klas had developed a 72% water content soft lens that when replaced frequently was proving successful for extended wear.  Klas invited Debbie, Brien Holden and Antti Vannas and a car full of equipment, to his practice to examine his patients. The Gothenburg study looked at the long term effects of extended contact lens wear on the anterior eye by examining 27 patients that had worn a lens in one eye only for on average five years. This study confirmed that all layers of the cornea were affected by hypoxia induced by contact lens wear but that these adverse tissue changes could be avoided by fitting lenses that have higher oxygen transmissibility, were more mobile, more frequently removed and more regularly replaced. These results along with the Holden-Mertz criteria directed contact lens development of highly oxygen permeable silicone hydrogel materials and daily disposable lenses.

Returning to Sydney, Debbie continued research to understand the effects of both contact lens wear and refractive surgery on corneal function.

The next 25 years was a blur of opportunity after opportunity.The CCLRU was expanding rapidly -there was opportunity to work with cross disciplinary teams of clinicians as well microbiologists and material scientists; there was a continual stream of international experts visiting the Unit – Graeme Wilson, Bob Sacks as well as opportunities to work with international collaborations including the  LVPEI team assembled by Nag Rao in Hyderabad India. Michel Guillon established the capability to run large scale clinical trials. During the 90s the Australian Government provided the framework to leverage the applied research that was being undertaken at the CCLRU and as a consequence the relationships with the ophthalmic industry. 

In 1991, led by Brien, the CRC for Eye Research and Technology (CRCERT) was established as part of the Australian Government’s CRC Program, to forge partnerships between researchers and industry and promote Australian innovation. With CIBA VISION, CRCERT brought together what was the largest multidisciplinary, multinational collaboration of scientists in this field at the time to produce the breakthrough silicone hydrogel FOCUS NIGHT & DAY contact lens.Debbie was fortunate to be the Director of Clinical Studies for the See3 Team coordinating studies in both Sydney and at LVPEI as well as working with cross disciplinary teams drawn from the CSIRO and from the industry partners in the USA and Europe.The See3 Team met every six months – researchers from the CRC with industry researchers, manufacturing experts and marketers- exciting meetings that matched the fast pace of the product development of an innovative landmark product.

For many years with Antti Vannas, Debbie continued her interest in the effects of ocular surgery on the cornea.The Artificial Cornea program to develop a corneal inlay as an alternative to refractive surgery was also part of the CRC Program. The multidisciplinary team involving polymer and surface chemists as well as biologists from CSIRO, and Antti Vannas as well as surgeons and scientists from the CRC and LVPEI won the prestigious Eureka Award for Multidisciplinary Research in 2004.

In 2003, the group secured its 3rd round of Government funding for the Vision CRC. Debbie served as the CEO of the CRC from 2004 until 2008.

Other career highlights were working with Brien Holden on the International Association of Contact Lens Educators, an association dedicated to raising the standard of contact lens education and promoting the safe use of contact lenses worldwide. Membership of the Association grew to over 600 educators from across 60 countries and Debbie served as President with Des Fonn as Vice President for 10 years.

Debbie also had the opportunity to serve the International Society for Contact Lens Research (ISCLR) first as Secretary for ten years and then as the first female President from 2001 until 2003 and recently perhaps her greatest career highlight was being awarded the Ruben Medal in 2015.

Through the ISCLR, IACLE and the research programs in the CRC and the CCLRU Debbie was fortunate to work with some amazing people in Australia and overseas. She has also travelled to many locations across the globe to present her research, be part of research discussions with a range of industry and research partners and through IACLE had the opportunity to visit optometry schools throughout Asia, Latin America and Europe.

At the end of 2009, when the Vision CRC had won its 4th round of government funding, Debbie joined Western Sydney University where she is now Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation.

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