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6 September 2021

Researchers investigate if protein in blood can prevent sight loss from glaucoma

Originally published in the Summer 2021 edition of Insight, our quarterly membership magazine.

Researcher at work

Researchers funded by Glaucoma UK, Fight for Sight and The Spectacle Makers’ Charity, are investigating if a naturally occurring protein in the body can be used to prevent sight loss from glaucoma.

The study, taking place at Cardiff University, is exploring if a neuroprotective agent called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) can be released in a controlled way from the blood when stimulated with an ultrasound as a targeted treatment for glaucoma.

Glaucoma is characterised by the loss of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) and leads to irreversible sight loss. RGCs are located near the inner surface of the retina and are responsible for sending messages to the brain, allowing us to see. A key area of glaucoma research, therefore, is exploring how to preserve these RGCs and prevent further sight loss.

Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which occurs naturally in blood platelets, has already been shown to have protective effects on RGCs as well as many other types of nerve cells. However, BDNF is difficult to deliver to the correct cells and its beneficial effects appear to be reduced over time, and so new ways to control dosage and delivery are needed.

Dr Andrew Want is leading the research at Cardiff University. He said: “Glaucoma is linked to high eye pressure and so current treatments for the condition are aimed at the reduction of this pressure. However, many patients continue to lose sight despite effective pressure control, highlighting a pressing need to find additional treatments. We want to take the benefits of BDNF seen in prior work closer to a viable clinical treatment by addressing several of the difficulties in delivery and dose control. As ultrasound equipment is already widely used in eye clinics, if our experiment is successful, this would ensure a quick, safe and cost-effective route to delivering this treatment in the clinics.”

Researchers will use a genetic model in the lab to determine the optimal exposure times and frequency of ultrasound needed for BDNF. Over four weeks they will monitor the eye pressure levels of a glaucoma model and give intermittent ultrasound treatments to determine if the BDNF reduces the degeneration of RGCs seen in glaucoma, demonstrating the ability of this treatment to protect these cells.