Investigating the potential to regenerate the optic nerve

28 July 22

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Research at the University of Cambridge is continuing to show progress towards achieving full reconnection of the eye and the brain after eye or optic nerve damage.

Glaucoma, otherwise known as the “silent thief of sight”, can cause irreversible damage to the optic nerve and often goes unnoticed until it is too late.

Once nerve fibres in the optic nerve start to deteriorate, it is impossible to reverse the damage and subsequent sight loss this causes.

Although there are currently treatments that preserve the retinal ganglion cells that connect the retina to the brain, more work is needed to make the damaged nerve fibres regenerate back to the brain.

Led by Professor Keith Martin and Dr Richard Eva, the work has been funded by Fight for Sight for the next three years. The team aim to develop therapies that could be effective in halting or reversing the damage caused by glaucoma, and that ultimately could facilitate eye transplantation – helping a transplanted eye to connect to the brain by growing axons through the optic nerve.

Identifying neurogenerative proteins

A key focus of previous work led by Professor Martin has been to identify neuroprotective proteins which could stop nerve fibres from degenerating.

Thanks to new funding from Fight for Sight, this project will now advance to investigate regeneration of nerve fibres within the damaged optic nerve.

The team will also investigate whether combining different treatments can enhance optic nerve repair, and they will monitor for any potential side effects.

Furthermore, they aim to develop better methods for testing regeneration treatments for glaucoma, potentially helping to advance glaucoma research in the future.

There has been exciting progress already from previous work by the team funded by Fight for Sight. An important advance has been the discovery that a scaffolding molecules called protrudin can stimulate nerve fibre regeneration in the optic nerve or spinal cord.

Speaking about the project, Professor Keith Martin told us: 

“We are really encouraged to see how effectively over-expression of protrudin in the optic nerve can enhance regeneration. This could be key to helping heal and regrow the optic nerve, essential for reversing the damage that for many people stays undetected until it is too late. We are delighted to be funded for another three years by Fight for Sight to continue this important work.”