Michigan State University researchers are developing new, non-invasive treatments for diabetic retinopathy — a common diabetic eye disease that can lead to blindness. Available treatments are often invasive, such as one treatment that requires monthly eye injections.
Diabetic retinopathy — with symptoms including blurriness, dark areas of vision, and difficulty perceiving colors — is the most common diabetic eye disease and a leading cause of blindness in Americans, according to the National Eye Institute. There are about 7.7 million U.S. adults with the disease and 93 million worldwide.
Julia Busik, an associate professor of physiology in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Michigan State, says current treatments are invasive and can cause loss of night and peripheral vision. Busik is developing cell therapies to promote blood vessel repair in the eye.
She says the retina can repair itself with cells circulating from the bone marrow. The cells, called progenitor cells, are released to make repairs when damage happens. Diabetes interferes with the body’s ability to repair itself, and in the case of diabetic retinopathy, the progenitor cells have decreased membrane fluidity, making most of the cells unable to squeeze out of the bone marrow into circulation.
Busik has found that when a person has diabetes, the progenitor cells produce high levels of an enzyme called acid sphingomyelinase. She measured this fluidity and used animal models to show that blocking the enzyme could protect individuals from retinal inflammation and damage.
“By just blocking acid sphingomyelinase in the bone marrow cells, we could treat the eye and make it healthy,” Busik says.
She says moving forward, her challenge is to refine the work because while limiting acid sphingomyelinase appears to be beneficial, she says it’s not an enzyme that can be completely blocked.
“There are some new delivery mechanisms though that are being developing that could offer better ways to inhibit the enzyme,” Busik says. “We are working on a few and are also looking at collaborating with other labs.”
The findings are published in two papers: in the journal Stem Cells and another in PLOS ONE.