Scientists move closer to curing common eye disorder

Scientists at The University of Manchester have successfully restored the sight of laboratory mice suffering from a common cause of blindness in people.

Image of a retina.

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.

Tuesday Feature Episode 14: Hema Radhakrishnan

Our eyes are one of the most interesting and crucial body parts in the entire human body. In this week’s episode, Faculty of Life Sciences Lecturer Hema Radhakrishnan tells us all about her research into the human eye and how one day we may not need to wear reading glasses.

Explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.

My research focuses on accommodation of the eye. The eye functions very much like the auto-focus on a camera. If you are looking at something in the distance – your eyes will perfectly focus on that object and you will see clearly. As soonHema at her desk as you start to look at things closer to you, your eyes will focus almost instantly (accommodate) so you can read those things close up. As we get older, this ability to focus declines. When you see a young child you’ll often see them hold the book close to their eyes whilst they read. As you age, you start to move objects further away from you in order to focus – this becomes an impossible feat when you get to about 45 or 50 because your arms are not long enough to hold the book far enough away from you.  This is why people will start to wear reading glasses because the accommodation changes, declining as we get older.  It is the ‘mechanism and repairing’ of a decline in accommodation that I research.

How does your research benefit the person reading this blog?

First off, the loss of accommodation happens to everyone – it’s a natural aging phenomenon by the age of 45 – 50. By this age we would have lost enough function in order to have a significant impact on how we focus and read things at a near. Understanding this mechanism better is the first step towards developing better treatment methodologies which could be in terms of spectacle lenses or contact lenses. What we do is study the optical reflexes in the eyes which are called ocular aberrations, to understand how these change when we change focus, particularly when we get older and this information is likely to be very useful in designing optical corrections for people who are starting to lose the ability to accommodate.

How did you first get interested in accommodation of the eye?

I did my undergraduate degree in optometry in India. We had an extremely good library which was very well stocked with not just optometry books but also the most recent optometry journals. I was always really keen on reading these and trying to understand what was happening in the eye and accommodation was something that fascinated me right from the start. I read some papers that interested me and I thought that I would like to go and do some further research on that. That’s where it all started really.

Have you got any science heroes? Who inspired you?

I’m going to take that as two separate questions. At present I consider every woman who is managing a young family and doing well in her research to be a science hero. Being a scientist is not really a 9-5 job, I’ve never seen a scientist work 37 or 40 hours a week and achieve the results that they get.  It requires total dedication to the work that you’re doing and people often work 50+ hours a week to be able to do their research properly. Doing that while you have a young family is an extremely difficult task as I’m now understanding. I really do take my hat off to any person who can do both of those things together.

In terms of inspiration, my biggest inspiration has been from Professor Neil Charman who used to work at the University of Manchester for a number of years and is now an Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester. His work has always inspired me – he was one of the pioneers who studies accommodation and optics in the human eye. His papers were some of the papers that I read as an undergraduate student and they inspired me do research later on in the future. He was one of my PhD examiners and subsequently one of the key influences on me wanting to move to Manchester. I feel lucky that I’ve been able to work with him and publish papers with him since I’ve been in Manchester. It’s a joy to work with him, not only is he so accomplished (he has won every major award that anyone who does optics or the human eye could win) he’s also very humble and down to Earth.  Someone like that is definitely an inspiration to people who want to do optometry.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Hema in the LabWorking in Manchester has been great. I’ve always enjoyed working here; I’ve got some very nice colleagues who are very helpful and really easy to work with. Also, Manchester has the culture of appreciating results and doesn’t always look at the number of hours you spend at your desk. It’s your contribution that matters – both to the University and to the Faculty of Life Sciences. That is extremely helpful. I’ve got two young children and being able to manage a family and work would be really difficult if I was expected to be at my desk all the time. Here in Manchester I’m able to do my research whilst teaching and doing administration and management roles which is what really counts. Being able to work flexibly means I will often come in early in the morning and leave early in the afternoon which is perfectly accepted because it is more about the contribution you give to the University. Also, the University of Manchester and Faculty of Life Sciences take social responsibility extremely seriously and it is one of the top things on their agenda which benefits the society which is great and I really appreciate that.

What do you do outside of work?

I love painting – I used to do a lot of painting outside of work when I did have the free time. Currently I don’t get much free time because I have a 4 year old daughter and a 1 year old son. I’m usually going to play dates,  swimming lessons and dance lessons – that’s what I usually spend my free time on!

Thank you once again Hema for a fascinating insight into the human eye. I was unaware of the certainty that everyone would require reading glasses, so I hope for my sake that your research into accommodation goes extremely well!