Scientists at The University of Manchester have successfully restored the sight of laboratory mice suffering from a common cause of blindness in people.
A team led by Rob Lucas and Paul Bishop carried out the pioneering research which may help sufferers of retinitis pigmentosa, a group of inherited eye disorders.
The treatment works by expressing a light sensitive human protein called rod opsin into the undamaged cells of the retina, so that it will turn them into special cells called photoreceptors which enable sight.
It was trialled on mice who had inherited advanced retinal degeneration and so were blind.
The treated mice became able to distinguish not only light from dark but also flickering from steady light as well as spatial patterns and to detect a natural movie – an advance on attempts to combat the disorders using non-human proteins.
Retinitis Pigmentosa is a leading cause of blindness: 1.5 million people worldwide are thought to be currently affected.
Using a human protein, says another team member Dr Jasmina Cehajic-Keptanovic , minimises the risk of side effects.
Professor Lucas said: “We aim to find ways of restoring photosensitivity to the retina in conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa in which loss of rod and cone photoreceptors leads to blindness. The protein rod opsin restores some vision under normal office light conditions, allowing mice to detect images presented using standard computer screens. Other researchers have also had some success using other sorts of light protein, but these generally require much brighter light beyond what we generally experience.”
The team’s paper is to be published in the journal Current Biology on 17 August.