Molecular dissection of the retina to elucidate early changes in diabetes

Research details

  • Type of funding: Project Grant
  • Grant Holder: Dr David Simpson
  • Institute: Queen's University Belfast
  • Region: Northern Ireland
  • Start date: July 2018
  • End Date: April 2022
  • Priority: Causes
  • Eye Category: Retinal vascular

Initially, minor abnormalities which do not affect sight are observed in the retinal blood vessels. Unfortunately these often become more severe and ultimately uncontrolled growth of new vessels leads to vision loss. The retina comprises a complex mixture of different cell types which work together to enable vision. The many different specialised nerve cells required to detect light and transmit the signal to the brain need support cells and the blood vessels which supply nutrients are themselves made up of several cell types. Although the blood vessels show the first obvious signs of damage there is increasing evidence that the nerve cells are also directly impaired by diabetes.

Researchers aim to more accurately determine what is going on within the retina during the early stages of diabetic retinopathy. Traditionally it has been considered that damage to the blood vessels is responsible for subsequent impairment of nerve cells. However, this is a ‘chicken and egg’ situation and less obvious initial problems in the nerve cells may actually contribute to the observed vessel abnormalities. We want to find out whether the numbers of each cell type are altered by diabetes and how their functions are affected at the molecular level.

Researchers will use a novel approach known as single cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-Seq) which enables them to simultaneously understand the genes in thousands of cells in the retinal tissue.

This research will provide a better understanding of the early stages of diabetic retinopathy. This knowledge will make it possible to design therapies that target specific early dysfunction in the appropriate cell types.