A new way to repair the damage caused by glaucoma

Professor Keith Martin, University of Cambridge:

"Despite all currently available treatments, around 10-15% of patients with glaucoma go blind in at least one eye during their lifetime. Our work aims to develop new strategies to repair the optic nerve and, ultimately, to restore vision in people who are blind due to optic nerve diseases like glaucoma."

Professor Keith Martin [right] from the University of Cambridge
Professor Keith Martin [right] from the University of Cambridge
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What is the aim of this project?
A project, based at the University of Cambridge, aims to strengthen the connection between the eye and the brain, protecting and regrowing the vital cells that are damaged by glaucoma and other conditions.

Glaucoma causes harm to retinal ganglion cells. These are the cells at the back of the eye which relay visual information to the brain. Their long, tail-like axons pass along the optic nerve, which functions rather like the cable connecting a camera to a computer. 

This particular research team is using Fight for Sight funding and collaborating with colleagues in Australia to investigate ways to use a so-called ‘scaffolding molecule,’ called protrudin, to help prevent or even repair damage to these retinal cells.

Why is this research needed?
Here is what Professor Keith Martin, who is leading this study, says about the importance of this work. "Despite all currently available treatments, around 10-15% of patients with glaucoma go blind in at least one eye during their lifetime. Our work aims to develop new strategies to repair the optic nerve and, ultimately, to restore vision in people who are blind due to optic nerve diseases like glaucoma."

Not only could this work be effective in halting or reversing the damage caused by glaucoma, it could also be hugely important in improving success rates of eye transplants – helping a transplanted eye to connect to the brain by growing axons through the optic nerve.

What method will researchers use?
The team will be exploring the potential of protrudin, a ‘scaffolding molecule’ that brings together many of the key components and processes needed to promote the growth of axons that link the eye to the brain.

Using a particular form of protrudin – one identified by the researchers as “the strongest promoter of optic nerve regeneration we have yet encountered” – they will develop what they are calling a regeneration strategy. Their aim will be to heal and regrow cells affected by glaucoma (and other forms of optic nerve damage) as well as exploring ways to ensure transplanted eyes form a strong connection to the brain.


What will this mean for people with glaucoma and optic nerve damage?
The optic nerve is crucial to clear sight, and this work could lead to a breakthrough that enables doctors to repair it.

To people affected by sight loss due to glaucoma or other forms of damage to the optic nerve, this Cambridge study may lead to brand new treatments that restore lost sight by strengthening the connection between the eye and the brain. This donor-funded work could be a game-changer, in terms of helping people make a fuller recovery after glaucoma treatment or eye transplants.

“It was a shock to be diagnosed with glaucoma but I have adjusted and learned to manage my condition. I support Fight for Sight because they focus on the people who count by researching solutions into conditions like glaucoma.”
- Maureen, living with glaucoma.

The importance of Fight for Sight
According to Professor Keith Martin, “Fight for Sight funding has been critical to our work to develop new treatments for glaucoma and other optic nerve diseases in Cambridge over the last few years.”
He continues, “I am delighted that this new Fight for Sight grant will help a collaboration with researchers working on spinal cord repair in Cambridge, allowing us to apply advances in spinal cord repair to the optic nerve and vice versa. In addition, this project is a nice example of international collaboration as Fight for Sight is helping scientists in Cambridge and Melbourne to work together to solve some of these problems. "

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