Diabetic Retinopathy Treatment May Get A Boost From Tregs

A disease fighting immune cell recently discovered in the eye may lead to new ways of treating retinopathy in prematurely born babies, and in adults.

Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is the primary cause of vision loss and blindness in children worldwide. The current treatment involves laser surgery to burn damaged blood vessels, but healthy cells may be damaged as well.

Diabetic retinopathy, a possible complication of diabetes, is the leading cause of blindness in American adults. It’s characterized by the swelling and leaking of retinal blood vessels, or the growth of abnormal blood vessels on the retina’s surface.

Monash University scientists, led by Professor Jennifer Wilkinson-Berka, found that regulatory T cells, called Tregs, are present in the eye’s retina. Tregs are white blood cells that fight disease, and it seems that they can be enlisted to treat retinopathy.

“People thought you couldn't actually have Tregs in eye tissue because the eye, like the brain, has a barrier that stopped them from entering,” said Wilkinson-Berka. “No one had ever described this before.”

The investigators confirmed the presence of Tregs within the eye using animal models. Then, they stimulated the cells to determine their effect on damaged retinal blood vessels, and found the damage was substantially reduced.

Though the research goal was to improve treatment outcomes for infants with ROP, the findings could have a significant positive impact on the treatment of retinopathy owed to diabetes.

Further research using animal models of diabetes will be conducted by the Monash researchers, and in clinical trials involving patients with diabetic retinopathy at the Royal Victorian Eye And Ear Hospital, and Centre for Eye Research Australia.

“My hopes are that this sort of immune system therapy can be given to patients safely,” said Wilkinson-Berka. “One of the treatments we're investigating is a very safe thing to do. The therapies would not be a cure but would be added to current treatments to further improve them.”

Source: Monash; NEI/NIH
Photo credit: NIAID

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