A new horizon for glaucoma?

What are miRNA and why could it help bring about a breakthrough in how we treat glaucoma?

As small and naturally occurring molecules go, microRNA (miRNA) are singularly impressive. Each miRNA can halt the synthesis (production) of proteins, and work to control and regulate protein levels in cells.

They work together with messenger RNA (mRNA) whose job it is to make the proteins in cells. Together, miRNA and mRNA form a kind of balance, ensuring the correct number of proteins keep being made in a cell.

In many diseases, cells become dysfunctional and die because there are too many or few proteins due to miRNA levels
in the cell. This is because the balance between miRNA and mRNA has broken down.

miRNA, then, are regulators of cell health, survival and death – and play a crucial role in conditions such as glaucoma.

Why could miRNA be important in glaucoma?

Dr Mead believes that understanding how miRNA change in the retinal ganglion cells (in the eye) as glaucoma progresses will allow him to identify miRNA that could be exploited for treatment.

Retinal ganglion cells are essential to maintaining connection with the optic nerve, which transmits information
derived from light to the brain from the retina (back of the eye).

The actions of the retina, ganglion cells and optic nerve ultimately allow humans to see.

These could then regulate or block a large number of signalling pathways and avert the death of retinal ganglion cells.

What is particularly novel about the approach is that the DNA structure of the gene would not be changed, rather the behaviour in the environment around it.

Paving the way for glaucoma treatment

In glaucoma, the optic nerve - which connects the eye to the brain - becomes damaged. This causes sight loss and cannot be reversed.

To manage the condition, doctors look to lower eye pressure, with the hope of staving off further visual decline.

Unfortunately, though, this is not always enough. It is estimated that, by 2040, the number of people living with glaucoma worldwide will have increased from 80 million to 120 million, with the subsequent impact on quality of life.

It is vital, then, that we support numerous strands of glaucoma research, with Dr Ben Mead being one such shining example.

He follows in the footsteps of Professor James Morgan, also from the Glaucoma Ophthalmic Diagnostic Teaching and Treatment Centre in Cardiff, a hub of glaucoma research excellence. Dr Mead’s potentially groundbreaking
new project concerns miRNA – molecules with a powerful control over the health of a cell.