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Towards a better way to treat retinopathy

Project summary

High blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels in the eye. The treatments we have that help to slow this damage and prevent sight loss don’t work for everyone and we urgently need new ones. Dr Medina found a protein, called BMP9, that can protect blood vessels in mice. In this project she’ll unpick how this protein works and test if a treatment that delivers it to the eye could help to prevent retinopathy. This could lead to new, better treatments that work for more people with diabetes and help to prevent sight loss.

Background to research

Our vision depends on constant blood supply to a region at the back of our eye called the retina. High blood sugar levels can damage the blood vessels in our retinas, making them leaky and inflamed, and cause eye problems and sight loss. This is known as retinopathy.

We have treatments for retinopathy, including eye injections and laser therapy, that can help to slow blood vessel damage. But around 30% of people with diabetes don’t respond well to the available treatments and there’s an urgent need to find new ones.

Scientists have discovered a protein, called BMP9, that protects blood vessels from becoming leaky in mice with diabetes. This could be a good potential target for future treatments, but at the moment scientists don’t know exactly how BMP9 works to protect against damage or whether they’d see the same benefits in human cells.

Research aims

Dr Medina will unravel how BMP9 works in human cells so that we can better understand its potential as a new treatment for retinopathy.

In the lab, Dr Medina’s team will carry out experiments to understand how BMP9 protects blood vessels in diabetes by studying its molecular behaviour in human retina cells that have been exposed to high blood sugars.

Next, the research team will test a gene therapy in mice. They’ll use a harmless virus to deliver DNA containing the BMP9 gene into the retina so that the retina cells can make the BMP9 protein. They’ll measure if the treatment helps to prevent blood vessel damage and to work out if it has potential to be used as an alternative to frequent eye injections.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

Sight loss is a devastating and life-changing complication, but existing treatments don’t work for everyone with diabetes, leaving some people especially vulnerable if they develop eye problems. This project could help us find a much-needed alternative treatment.

If successful, this new approach could protect more people and provide long term protection from a single treatment, avoiding the need for monthly eye injections.

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