'Relaxin' the pressure in glaucoma

Research details

  • Type of funding: PhD Studentship
  • Grant Holder: Professor Colin Willoughby
  • Institute: Ulster University
  • Region: Northern Ireland
  • Start date: October 2023
  • End Date: October 2026
  • Priority: Treatment
  • Eye Category: Glaucoma
Brief Lay background

Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness and is characterised by damage to the optic nerve – the nerve that connects the eyes to the brain.

Around 80 million people across the globe have glaucoma, and with the ageing population, this number is projected to increase to 120 million by 2040.

What problem/knowledge gap does it help address

In many cases, glaucoma is linked to high pressure within the eye (called intraocular pressure or IOP), which damages the optic nerve and leads to sight loss.

Steroids – medicines that are commonly used to treat a variety of conditions – can cause blockages in the eye’s drainage system, leading to a build-up of fluid and an increase in IOP. If unrecognised, the steroid response can develop into steroid-induced glaucoma. Interestingly, almost all people with the common form of glaucoma – called primary open-angle glaucoma (POAG) – are steroid responders.

The researchers have recently identified that relaxin, an anti-scarring hormone, is markedly reduced in the drainage system of eyes from donors who show a steroid response. This suggests relaxin could offer a new approach for treating POAG and steroid-induced glaucoma – by helping to prevent ongoing scarring in the eye’s drainage system.

Aim of the project

To investigate the role of relaxin in glaucoma – and explore its potential as a treatment for POAG and steroid-induced glaucoma.

Key procedures/objectives
  1. Study the effects of molecules known to cause glaucoma in humans – steroids and transforming growth factor beta (TGF-ß) – using cells grown from the human eye drainage system (from donor eyes) and the cow’s eye drainage system.
  2. Evaluate the ability of relaxin to counteract the effects of steroids and TGF-ß on the eye’s drainage system in these model systems.
  3. Explore the therapeutic potential of relaxin using a unique cow eye model of glaucoma. 
Potential impact on people with sight loss

This research could ultimately lead to a new class of medicines for POAG and steroid-induced glaucoma that can help prevent or reduce sight loss, improving people’s quality of life.