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Inside the lab: A closer look at retinopathy research

In 2021 we invested £6.6 million into new research, here we take a peek at one of our diabetic retinopathy projects that is just getting off the ground.

Professor Reinhold Medina is a professor of Diabetes and Vascular Medicine in The Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast. With our funding he’s investigating how to develop better treatments for the damage diabetes can have on blood vessels in the back part of the eye, called the retina. This damage is called diabetic retinopathy.

A better way to treat diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy can happen when high blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the eye, making them leaky. If not treated it can eventually lead to sight loss. Current treatments for retinopathy include eye injections and laser therapy, but these treatments don’t work well for around 30% of people with diabetes. This means we urgently need to find new and better alternative treatments to protect and repair blood vessels in the eye.

This is where Professor Medina comes in. He’s an expert in how diabetes can affect blood vessels in the body. We asked Professor Medina what led him to a career in diabetes research. He said,

I’m driven by the opportunity to apply my scientific knowledge and expertise to tackle a major health problem, and the motivation that diabetes research has the potential to have real global impact for millions of people living with diabetes.

Professor Medina’s project is focussing in on a protein, called BMP9, that scientists have discovered protects blood vessels in the eyes of mice with diabetes. It could potentially be used in future treatments for retinopathy, but for now scientists don’t know exactly how BMP9 protects against eye damage or how effective it would be in humans.

In the lab, Professor Medina’s team are carrying out experiments to study how BMP9 affects human retina cells that have been exposed to high blood sugars.

The research team are also testing a gene therapy in mice to give retina cells the genetic information they need to make the BMP9 protein. The research team will see if this gene therapy helps to prevent blood vessel damage.

We hope that Professor Medina’s research will ultimately lead to new and improved diabetic retinopathy treatments so that more people can avoid devastating damage to their eyes and there’s no longer the need for treatments that involve invasive eye injections.

Keeping an eye on the future

Professor Medina said,

The next steps would be to explore new drugs that change the ‘conversations’ happening between cells as a new treatment for leaky blood vessels in diabetic eye disease. Further development of a gene therapy approach may also be possible, depending on results in mice.

Professor Medina highlighted some of the progress he would like to see over the next decade for diabetes care and management.

I would like to see more use of AI to improve diabetes care and management. In my research area, I would like to see new and effective eye health therapies, using advanced technologies in cell and gene therapies, to complement current available treatments.

We are extremely grateful for your support. Diabetes UK's support of research is critical to develop new therapies. A better understanding of the effects of diabetes in blood vessels within our retinas will enable discovery of new approaches to treat eyes in people with diabetes.

The work of our amazing researchers, who lead the way in transforming the lives of people with diabetes, wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of our wonderful supporters.

Find out more about the research projects we’re funding

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