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Can our own cells help to repair eye damage?

Project summary

Diabetes can cause damage to blood vessels in the eye, known as retinopathy. Current treatments can stop this damage getting worse but they can’t usually reverse it. Dr Hannah Levis hopes to develop a new treatment that could do just this. She wants to see if specialised cells, taken from people with diabetes, can repair damaged blood vessels in the eye. This research could help to transform care for people with diabetes and help stop sight loss in the future.

Background to research

Some people with diabetes develop serious complications with their eyes, called diabetic retinopathy. It happens when high blood sugar levels cause tiny blood vessels at the back of the eye to break down and become leaky. If you don’t get this treated, it can lead to sight loss.

We have cells circulating in our blood called endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs). These cells hone into damaged areas and repair them. But people with diabetes have fewer of these cells and they may not work properly.

Dr Levis has found that, in the lab, EPCs taken from people without diabetes can repair the damage to cells that diabetes can cause. Scientists think that a person’s own cells would be more helpful in this process, but studies have suggested that cells taken from people with diabetes don’t grow as well as cells from people without the condition.

Research aims

Dr Levis wants to test whether EPCs taken from people with diabetes can also repair damage to blood vessels in the eye.

Dr Levis and her team will recruit people with diabetes who have been diagnosed with different stages of retinopathy, ranging from before they have any symptoms to severe, sight-affecting retinopathy. They will take a blood sample from the volunteers and separate out their EPCs.

They’ll perform tests to see if the cells taken from people with diabetes are different from those from people without the condition, and understand if they can repair damaged blood vessels in the same way.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

Current retinopathy treatments do not usually improve eye damage, they just stop it getting worse. This research could help scientists to develop a new treatment for people with diabetes, using their own cells to try to repair blood vessels in the eye. If successful, this work could be transformational for people with diabetes who are at risk of devastating sight loss.

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