Fight for Sight: Boosting natural repair processes could be an alternative treatment in age related macular degeneration

Male scientist in laboratory

19 June 2019
Source: Fight for Sight

Fight for Sight has announced funding for scientists at Queen’s University Belfast who hope to boost the capacity for damaged tiny blood vessels in the back of the eye to repair themselves – prevent or slow down sight loss for patients with age-related macular degeneration.

The research, led by Professor Alan Stitt, Dr Reinhold Medina and Dr Imre Lengyel at Queens University Belfast, was announced by Fight for Sight during Macular Week 2019, (24-30 June), and could lead to a new way of treating the condition.

Age related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of blindness in the UK. An estimated 600,000 people are currently living with the condition, and this number is set to more than double to 1.3 million by 2050.

The researchers have recently discovered that problems with the mechanisms that repair damage to these tiny blood vessels as we age may contribute to the development of this form of AMD – and so they are now investigating this in more detail.

Excitingly, they are already exploring the potential of drugs that can boost the capacity of blood vessels to repair themselves as a way of treating AMD. Some of these are already being tested in clinical trials for other conditions such as stroke, so this research could lead to an entirely new treatment approach to prevent or slow down sight loss in patients.

Dr Neil Ebenezer, Director of Research Policy and Innovation at Fight for Sight, said: “We’re delighted to announce funding for this project, and what better time than at the start of Macular Week 2019.  Age related macular degeneration can have a huge impact on people’s lives. This research means patients could benefit from exciting new treatments that repair damage to eye blood vessels, preventing their disease from progressing to later stages and helping to preserve their sight.”

Professor Alan Stitt from Queens University Belfast said: “Our hope is that our work could lead to an entirely new, exciting and beneficial treatment for patients with this type of age-related macular degeneration where are few current options.”

Why is this research needed?

AMD is the leading cause of blindness in the UK. An estimated 600,000 people are currently living with the condition, and this number is set to more than double to 1.3 million by 2050.

People with the early stages of AMD will usually have few symptoms – but those with later stages will experience severe sight loss that hugely affects their quality of life.

There are two types of late-stage AMD. One is called ‘wet’ AMD where abnormal blood vessels start to grow underneath the retina – there are injections available that can reverse this. The other more common form is called geographic atrophy (also called ‘dry AMD’) where there is a gradual breakdown of light-sensing cells and supporting tissues within regions of the retina.

Unfortunately, there are no effective treatments that can slow down or prevent early stages of the condition from progressing to later stage blinding disease – and there is no current treatment for dry AMD.

A priority is to develop effective new treatments that can stop AMD from progressing from early to later stages. But we first need to develop a better understanding of the biology behind different forms of the condition.

What method will researchers use?

The team is investigating the role of a network of fine blood vessels that underlie the retina in the development of the most common late-stage form of AMD. These capillaries supply the outer layer of the retina with vital oxygen and nutrients and are gradually lost in patients, which happens alongside the loss of light-sensing cells and supporting tissues in dry AMD. But how and why this occurs is currently not fully understood.

The researchers have recently discovered that problems with the mechanisms that repair damage to these tiny blood vessels as we age may contribute to the development of this form of AMD – and so they are now investigating this in more detail.

Excitingly, they are already exploring the potential of drugs that can boost the capacity of blood vessels to repair themselves as a way of treating AMD. Some of these are already being tested in clinical trials for other conditions such as stroke. So this research could lead to an entirely new treatment approach to prevent or slow down sight loss in patients.

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