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News > Alumni News > "My German teacher helped me on my path to becoming a Doctor"

"My German teacher helped me on my path to becoming a Doctor"

Dr Sajjad Ahmad’s pioneering work in stem cell therapies is transforming the landscape of eye care and offering renewed hope to patients worldwide.
3 Jul 2024
Alumni News
Pioneering eye surgeon Dr Sajjad Ahmad
Pioneering eye surgeon Dr Sajjad Ahmad

Dr Sajjad Ahmad, a leading figure in ophthalmology, vividly remembers the day a teacher at Dame Allan’s Schools offered support that would set him on the path to his groundbreaking medical career.

“I had ADHD that hadn’t been diagnosed and I found it really difficult to concentrate and retain information, especially for school tests and exams. Academically, I was struggling,” explains Saj, reflecting on his early days at Dame Allan’s Boys’ School in the 1980s.

German teacher Mrs. Aitchison recognised his potential and provided him with the tools and strategies to improve his organisation and study habits. “She sat me down one day and said, ‘This is what you need to do’ and helped me develop a study timetable and effective revision techniques,” recalls Saj. “Mrs. Aitchison changed me from a very disorganised child to the very organised person I am today.”

Her efforts paid off, as he transitioned from struggling academically to excelling in his studies. Saj achieved top marks in his GCSEs and A-Levels. “She had a huge impact on my life. I always talk about her very warmly and feel grateful for her guidance. It was a pivotal moment for me,” reflects Saj, who grew up in Fenham before his family moved to Woolsington, near Ponteland.

Saj attended Dame Allan’s during the establishment of its Diamond structure and was among the first pupils to benefit from a co-educational Sixth Form. The launch of the Community Service volunteering programme when he entered Year 12 played a significant role in nurturing his passion for a future in medicine.

He explains: “At the time I’d chosen A levels in Biology, Chemistry and Maths and was considering becoming an architect. I was genuinely torn between that and pursuing medicine. 

“Then I joined the new Community Service programme and worked in an old people’s home. I volunteered every week, and it was great. It was there I realised that my heart was set on medicine, and I’ve never regretted taking that path.” 

After Dame Allan’s, Saj completed a medical degree at Newcastle University and began his surgical and medical training at the Freeman Hospital. He was mentored by prominent figures including Professor George Alberti and Sir Michael Rawlins. He pursued early ophthalmic training at the RVI in Newcastle and then undertook a fellowship in corneal transplantation and complex surgery in Liverpool before moving to London. 

Today, Saj is a distinguished Consultant Ophthalmic Surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital with a remarkable career spanning research, academia and clinical practice. He has dedicated much of his time to advancing treatments for rare and severe eye diseases, with a particular focus on stem cell therapies. 

He is making significant strides in the treatment of aniridia, a congenital eye condition characterised by the partial or complete absence of the iris, leading to severe visual impairment and related complications. 

His latest project, the RAFT (Real Architecture for 3D Tissues) trial, adopts a revolutionary approach to treating aniridia-related keratopathy (ARK), a severe corneal complication of the disease. Funded by Moorfields Eye Charity and the Medical Research Council, the project uses artificial tissue created from donated human corneas. This innovative treatment involves transplanting limbal epithelial stem cells and stromal cells into the affected eye, aiming to restore the corneal surface and significantly improve vision for the 21 patients participating in the study.

“Patients with aniridia face lifelong visual challenges,” explains Saj. "The RAFT trial is designed to not only halt the progression of ARK but also enhance visual acuity and quality of life.”

His expertise in corneal stem cell treatments began with his groundbreaking work on chemical burns. These injuries, often caused by industrial accidents, result in severe damage to the cornea. Saj earned a PhD in stem cell biology from the Institute of Human Genetics at Newcastle University and developed innovative stem cell treatments that have now been successfully integrated into NHS clinical practice, providing life-changing results for patients.

“Our success with treating chemical burns has laid a strong foundation for our current work with aniridia,” says Saj. “We have shown that stem cell therapies can effectively repair and regenerate damaged corneal tissue, offering new hope to patients with severe ocular injuries.”

Saj is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Ophthalmology, University College London, and an Honorary Senior Clinical Lecturer at the Department of Eye and Vision Science at the University of Liverpool. 

His clinical expertise encompasses corneal, cataract and ocular surface diseases, with specialised training acquired through fellowships under the mentorship of renowned experts including Professor Stephen Kaye at St Paul's Eye Unit, Liverpool, and Professor John Dart at Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. 

Saj's dual focus on clinical excellence and research innovation is driving significant advancements in ophthalmology. His work on both aniridia and chemical burns showcases the potential of stem cell therapies to offer tangible benefits to patients, moving from experimental stages to real-world clinical applications.

“We are at the forefront of a new era in ophthalmology,” enthuses Saj. "Through our research and collaborative efforts, we can transform lives and provide hope to those affected by severe eye conditions.”

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