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Research

Beating blindness

Using cutting-edge technologies to develop better treatments for eye conditions

Published: 
6 April 2022

Vision loss is one of the most frightening health issues we can face. As humans, we tend to take our eyesight for granted and when it deteriorates, it can be an isolating and worrying time.

Southampton researchers are using a combination of gene therapy, artificial intelligence (AI) and technology from the Hubble Telescope to understand the common causes of blindness and develop better treatments for patients in a truly bench-to-bedside approach.

Gene engineering

With over 20 years of research into the causes of blindness, Professor Andrew Lotery, Chair of Ophthalmology at the University, and his team are pioneering a new form of gene therapy for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – one of the most common causes of vision loss.

Through many collaborations with colleagues in Southampton and around the world, the team have identified 52 genes that cause macular degeneration and are beginning to study each one in order to understand their role in the mechanisms for blindness, with the aim of developing new treatments.    

One such gene – TSPAN10 is found in retinal cells and is associated with an increased risk of macular degeneration. “Using genome engineering – technology that allows scientists to edit out a single gene – we can remove TSPAN10 from cells to understand its role in the deterioration of the macula: the centre of the retina at the back of the eye” says Andrew.

 

Gene therapy treatment is the focus of a current clinical trial for dry AMD. If successful, it could lead to the first treatment for dry age-related macular degeneration, which is a huge unmet need to date.

Professor Andrew Lotery - Chair of Ophthalmology

Using artificial intelligence (AI) to understand AMD

Thanks to the University’s Gift of Sight Appeal, which is an essential support for Andrew’s research, the team was able to buy a special retina camera. This in turn led to a £4m Wellcome Trust Grant, which has enabled Andrew to bring together leading experts in AMD from across the world.

The aim of this project is to use AI to gain new insights into AMD. Through the collaboration, the team has access to over 500,000 retinal scans, each one containing one million pieces of information.

“Using the data we have collected from these scans, our computers can produce models of how the retina deteriorates over time. This allows us to predict who is at greater risk of progression of the disease, which will help in clinical management,” Andrew says.

Harnessing the Hubble Telescope

Another strand of Andrew’s work is using Hubble Telescope technology to take very focused and detailed images of the retinal cells at the back of the eye.

“For the first time, we can see individual cells that sense light at the back of the eye in a living person.

The images show that inflammatory cells in the living eye congregate at the point where there is currently macular degeneration. This has not been seen before and it is due to this cutting-edge technology that we are being able to understand this small part in the mechanism of AMD

Professor Andrew Lotery - Chair of Ophthalmology
Having an impact on patients’ lives in the clinic
Having an impact on patients’ lives in the clinic

From bench to bedside

The unique aspect of Andrew’s work is that his team’s research can have an impact on patients’ lives relatively quickly.

Andrew recently led a clinic trial across 22 sites in the UK, focusing on the effectiveness of a drug called eplerenone. This is the most widely used treatment for another eye disease, central serous retinopathy (CSR), which affects the macula, causing blurred or distorted vision.

The result of the trial confirmed that eplerenone was not effective against CSR at all. “To many this could be seen as a negative result, but this is actually an important result,” says Andrew.

“This will result in eplerenone being withdrawn as a treatment for CSR, saving patients from harmful side effects. We can now focus all our efforts on finding more appropriate treatments for this debilitating disease.”

For out more about Andrew’s research, or donate to Gift of Sight.

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