Which ‘control genes’ in the eye play a part in causing glaucoma?

Research details

  • Type of funding: Fight for Sight / International Glaucoma Association Small Grant Award
  • Grant Holder: Prof Colin Willoughby
  • Institute: University of Liverpool
  • Region: North West
  • Start date: May 2015
  • End Date: August 2016
  • Priority: Causes
  • Eye Category: Glaucoma


The eye stays at a constant pressure by continuously producing fluid (called aqueous humour) while an equal amount of the fluid drains out of the eye through what’s known as the ‘trabecular meshwork’. In the most common type of glaucoma, known as ‘primary open-angle glaucoma’, the trabecular meshwork becomes blocked slowly over time.

As pressure in the eye mounts the specialised cable that leads from eye to brain (the optic nerve) becomes damaged, leading to serious, irreversible sight loss if left untreated.

We know that complex networks of genes known as microRNAs control whether proteins are produced or destroyed in the body, both in health and illness. In the healthy trabecular meshwork microRNAs are involved in cell death and how the tissue responds to mechanical stress and scarring. But we don’t yet know which microRNAs might play a part in primary open-angle glaucoma or which proteins they control.

In this project the team is studying the microRNA genes in tissue from patients having surgery for glaucoma. They'll compare this with normal trabecular meshwork tissue. They're using the latest technology to look at over 2000 microRNAs to find out which ones are linked to glaucoma. From this list they will test for the best candidates and use computer models to identify the genes and proteins they control.

Results from the project could teach us a lot about some of the key molecules involved in glaucoma. They could also help advance the emerging field of microRNA therapeutics, in which microRNA mimics or blockers against specific targets could be developed to lower eye pressure as new treatments for glaucoma.