Finding a New Treatment for Retinal Blindness
March 31, 2014

Finding A New Treatment For Retinal Blindness

Recently, a good friend of mine started having trouble seeing out of one of his eyes. Needless to say, this was more than a little disconcerting. He spent the day finding a doctor who would see him on short notice and getting it checked out. Fortunately, it turned out to be little more than an inflamed nerve in his eye that would naturally lessen over time, returning his sight to him. Of course, everyone was glad to hear that he was okay. Losing your sight is a scary prospect for anyone, even if it is just partially. With my own vision being not-so-good and getting worse, I know that one day I will have to deal with that myself and that is not a day I look forward to.

Fortunately, there is hope for those who suffer from retinal blindness on the horizon. Retinal blindness, or proliferative retinopathies, is one of the leading causes of blindness. It is caused when newly formed, abnormal blood vessels develop along the retina. As these vessels multiply (proliferate) they bleed and scar, which can detach the retina. In addition, even their bleeding can cause severe vision loss and blindness. Recently, scientists discovered that the body’s natural immune system can do more than help ward off external pathogens. It can also help remove these sight-stealing abnormal blood vessels, cleaning out the eye and leaving the healthy cells and tissue unharmed. This is an important discovery as the retina is a part of our central nervous system and thus its cells cannot be replaced once lost. Scientists are now working on ways of boosting our immune system’s response to these abnormal blood vessels, which would allow our bodies to clean them out faster so that they could do less harm to our vision.

This discovery was made when scientists from the Department of Ophthalmology at the Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary Angiogenesis Laboratory in Boston, Massachusetts compared two groups of mice. One which was genetically modified to lack activity in the innate immune complement system, and a normal group with a fully functioning immune system. Both groups were placed in an environment that induced irregular blood vessel growth in the eye, a forced proliferative retinopathies. The mice that lacked the fully functioning immune system developed significantly more irregular blood vessels than the normal mice, which indicated that the complement system acts as a major regulator of abnormal blood vessel growth inside of the eye. More importantly, though, the scientists were able to observe the immune system of the unmodified mice target and kill only the irregular blood vessels in their eyes, while leaving the healthy cells unharmed.

This finding is a huge first step in learning how to counteract and even potentially cure proliferative retinopathies, a condition that many are forced to live with every day. Hopefully, with further work and study, we will one day live to see this horrible condition forever eliminated.

One can only hope.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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