Belfast team in eye disease breakthrough

May also lead to new heart treatments
  • Deborah Condon

Researchers in Belfast have discovered a new way of treating major eye diseases, which currently threaten the sight of millions of people worldwide.

Their findings focus on eye diseases that are caused by the abnormal growth of new blood vessels, including diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). It is hoped that this research will enable the development of new and better treatments for these conditions.

The researchers from Queen's University found that a specific protein in the body, called CAMKII, acts to coordinate the different signals that cause new blood vessels to grow.

This discovery provides a previously unknown understanding of how blood vessels grow in the body. It also offers a basis for the development of new treatments, which are likely to prove much more successful for patients than current treatments.

According to estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are around 285 million visually impaired people worldwide, of which 39 million are blind.

The retina is the part of the eye that senses light and key to this role are blood vessels, which provide essential oxygen and nutrients. Normally, these blood vessels remain unchanged during adulthood, but with some eye-related conditions, they begin to grow uncontrollably.

This uncontrollable growth can lead to damage of the retina, resulting in vision loss and even blindness.

The current best treatment for these conditions is monthly injections into the eye with a drug that blocks a molecule called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). However, this drug is ineffective in up to 50% of patients. Resistance to this treatment is thought to occur because of the presence of other signals, which drive the damaging uncontrolled growth of blood vessels.

However, the team at Queen's has discovered a way of blocking this growth factor, as well as a number of other signals.

"Our study has pinpointed a key regulator of abnormal blood vessel growth in the eye that will enable us to design new, better, treatments against a number of sight-threatening diseases," explained lead investigator, Prof Tim Curtis, of Queen's University.

Meanwhile, the researchers also pointed out that the blood vessels of the eye share several common characteristics with the blood vessels of the heart, therefore eye studies represent a less invasive way of understanding potential heart treatment breakthroughs.

"The research team's understanding of how blood vessels form and grow may also help us to devise new strategies to mend hearts after a heart attack. Every week heart attacks devastate families by killing loved ones and leaving many others with debilitating heart conditions that make the rest of their lives a daily struggle," commented Karen McCammon of the British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland, which funded the study.

She said that while some patients make a full recovery after a heart attack, returning to normal activities after a few months, others face further problems, such as heart failure.

"Knowing how to control blood vessel growth might help discover new ways to repair failing hearts by improving blood supply to damaged heart muscle. "Prof Curtis's research could help the many people who have a heart attack every year return to a normal and full life," Ms McCammon added.

Details of these findings are published in the journal, JCI (Journal of Clinical Investigation) Insight.

*Pictured is Prof Tim Curtis of Queen's University, Belfast

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