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New therapy to prevent vision loss

Project summary

Developing a novel therapy for diabetic macular oedema

A condition called diabetic macular oedema (DMO) is a major cause of vision loss in people with diabetes. A PhD student in Professor Heping Xu’s lab will work to develop a new, effective and safe therapy to treat it. Their approach is to see whether existing drugs used for treating cancer and inflammation could be used for DMO.

Background to research

High levels of glucose in the blood and high blood pressure can damage small blood vessels at the back of the eye, making them leaky. If fluid from blood vessels leaks into a specific area at the back your eye, called the macula, diabetic macular oedema, or DMO, develops. We know that too much VEGF (a molecule that stimulates the growth of new blood vessels in the retina) contributes to the leakiness of blood vessels. Current treatments for DMO work by either blocking VEGF activity or reducing inflammation in the eye. But neither approach is ideal. Around half of people respond poorly to drugs which block VEGF activity, and drugs which reduce inflammation may lead to cataracts and other serious eye conditions.

Professor Xu and other scientists have discovered that a different molecule, called STAT3, is also involved in vessel leakiness. It influences how cells respond to VEGF. Professor Xu and his team have shown that blocking STAT3 activity can protect the eye from damage caused by diabetes. Drugs that block the activity of STAT3 are already being used to treat cancer and inflammation. However, we don’t yet know if these drugs would be suitable to use in the eye.

Research aims

A PhD student in Professor Xu’s lab will be working to see if drugs designed to block STAT3 activity, currently used to treat cancer and inflammation, could be repurposed to treat DMO. First, they will grow small blood vessels from the eye in the laboratory to find out which currently available drugs could protect against DMO. The next step will be to test, in the laboratory, whether these drugs would be safe to use in the eye and whether they can prevent the development of DMO.

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

At Diabetes UK we are committed to finding ways of improving the life quality of people with diabetes and preventing diabetes-related complications, including blindness. If this project is successful, it will provide the information needed to develop better ways of treating diabetic macular oedema and preventing sight loss.

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