Researchers investigate new treatment for glaucoma

Photo by Daniil Kuželev

As an avid reader, I find I can get through just about anything if I can decompress and escape into a good book — so the idea of losing my vision is scary. However, millions of Americans face this fear due to glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness for those over 60.

Now, vision scientists at the University of California, Berkeley have discovered a new target for treating glaucoma, as recently reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Glaucoma is a neurodegenerative disease of the major nerve of vision, called the optic nerve. Typically, fluid builds up in the front part of the eye, causing pressure that irreversibly damages the optic nerve. If left untreated, glaucoma can lead to vision loss and permanent blindness.

Current treatments focus on lowering eye pressure using eye drops, oral medications, laser therapy or surgery. But researchers are searching for a way to prevent or stop the neurodegeneration itself. Berkeley researchers have now identified a new mechanism for stopping this degeneration in rats and mice with glaucoma.

Their research focused on the role of retinal astrocytes — cells that help make up the nerve fiber layer of the retina and optic nerve — which are important for developing and maintaining healthy eyes. They discovered that retinal astrocytes release powerful molecules called lipoxins A4 and B4 that act locally to dampen inflammation and help coordinate protective signaling for neurons in the eye. Surprisingly, they determined that astrocytes produce less of these lipoxins in eyes affected by glaucoma.

“Our research discovered that astrocytes that are triggered by injury actually turn off novel neuroprotective signals that prevent optic nerve damage,” explained study senior author John Flanagan, OD, PhD, professor and dean of optometry at UC Berkeley, in a recent news release.

The research team then tested the most promising lipoxin B4 as a therapy. Rodents were treated with lipoxin B4 eight weeks after developing glaucoma-like effects — the critical time point when the neurodegeneration typically becomes irreversible. After 15 weeks, they found that lipoxin B4 stopped the cells’ neurodegeneration.

Based on these encouraging results, the Berkeley researchers plan to further explore the therapeutic potential of these lipoxins for glaucoma and other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“These naturally occurring small lipids have great potential as therapies because they may play a fundamental role in preventing other neurodegenerative diseases. And that’s hugely significant,” said Flanagan in the release.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Author: Jennifer Huber

As a Ph.D. physicist and research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I gained extensive experience in medical imaging and technical writing. Now, I am a full-time freelance science writer, editor and science-writing instructor. I've lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of my life and I frequently enjoy the eclectic cultural, culinary and outdoor activities available in the area.

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