Ground-breaking research by Monash University scientists has demonstrated the previously unknown existence of a disease-fighting immune cell in the eye and points to potential novel ways of treating eye disorders in premature babies and diabetic adults.
The scientists, led by Professor Jennifer Wilkinson-Berka in the Central Clinical School’s new Department of Diabetes, were investigating improved ways of treating retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), which occurs in very small, prematurely born babies.
ROP is the main cause of vision loss and blindness in children globally. Current treatment is laser surgery on newborn babies to burn the damaged blood vessels that occur with the disorder, which also damages healthy cells.
The scientists found for the first time that regulatory T cells (Tregs) — disease-fighting white blood cells — are present in the retina.
“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. No one had ever described this before,” Professor Wilkinson-Berka said.
In a paper published in the journal, Nature Communications, the researchers boosted the cells to test whether they could repair damaged blood vessels in the retina and found that ROP was significantly reduced.
Professor Wilkinson-Berka said improving treatments for babies with ROP was increasingly important as technology improved, saving increasingly small babies.
“We’re seeing what’s called a third epidemic of ROP as premature babies are getting smaller and smaller,” she said.
Whereas babies born weighing less than 1500 grams have a 50 to 70 percent risk of getting ROP, those under 750 grams have a 98 percent chance they will be affected in varying degrees, she said.
Source: Monash University. (2017, October 2). Radical research raises hopes for eye disease treatment for premature babies. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 24, 2017.