Fight for Sight is working to prevent sight loss due to diabetes

15 June 15

written by:

Ade Deane-Pratt

(more articles)

A look at our diabetic retinopathy research for Diabetes Week.

This week is Diabetes Week. Did you know that diabetic retinopathy – a major complication of diabetes – is the most common cause of sight loss in the UK amongst people of working age?

Within 20 years of being diagnosed, almost everyone with type 1 diabetes and more than half of people with type 2 diabetes will be affected. Left untreated, diabetic retinopathy can lead to sight loss or blindness. In the UK, people of South Asian and Afro-Caribbean origin are most at risk, both of type 2 diabetes and sight-threatening diabetic retinopathy.

Sight loss in diabetes is a result of high blood sugar. Over time, it damages the blood vessels that provide oxygen and nutrients to the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye (the retina). This damage causes the fragile blood vessel walls to leak. Eventually, unhealthy new blood vessels grow and the retina becomes scarred.

£1.5 million on research

Fight for Sight is currently committed to funding 11 diabetic retinopathy research projects at a total cost of over £1.5 million. The projects aim to understand the mechanics of blood vessel damage in the retina, improve current treatments and develop new treatments to repair any damage, before sight loss occurs, as well as improving our ability to detect the condition early.

Current treatments for diabetic retinopathy focus on the later stages and preventing new blood vessel growth. But while drugs such as Lucentis (also used to treat age-related macular degeneration) can improve vision for people with diabetic retinopathy, they are not 100 percent effective. This could be because they only target one of the body’s triggers for new blood vessels to grow.

Leading Queen’s University Belfast

Instead, Dr Tim Curtis has been working on a potential new treatment that could target several triggers – known as ‘growth factors’ – at once. This is one of several projects we have funded at Queen’s University Belfast, one of the UK’s leading centres for diabetic retinopathy research. Taking a different approach, Dr Mei Chen will try to find out whether targeting a particular protein in the immune system could prevent high blood sugar from leading to unhealthy blood vessels.

In another study there, Professor Alan Stitt has been investigating a type of stem cell that could help repair leaky blood vessels early on. This type of stem cell therapy has already been able to repair heart and limb tissue.

In London at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, Dr Marcus Fruttiger and team are trying to artificially kick-start the immune system. Their early studies showed that this could potentially lead to healthy new blood vessel growth as well as lowering the demand for oxygen in the retina.

Automatic screening

Meanwhile at the University of Liverpool Dr Yalin Zheng’s team is trying to develop automatic computer screening to detect the early stages of diabetic retinopathy. In 2011-12 almost 2 million of England’s 2.5 million people with diabetes were screened by the NHS, but the process takes time and is expensive. The automatic computer system would mean that people could be diagnosed at the point of care.

Proud of our programme

“I’m really proud of our research programme in diabetic retinopathy,” said Dr Dolores M Conroy, Director of Research at Fight for Sight. “The Sight Loss and Vision Priority Setting Partnership identified the top priorities for research into retinal vascular conditions according to the people they affect most. High on that list was research to understand more about how diabetes leads to sight loss and how that sight loss can be prevented.

“Results from these projects will lead to a clear clinical benefit for people with diabetic retinopathy. And we will continue to keep diabetic retinopathy very high on our research agenda.”

Diabetes Week is organised by the charity Diabetes UK.