Developing Treatments for Blindness: Gene Therapy Shown to Restructure Retinas

A new study, carried out on mice, shows great promise for developing treatments that restore vision in blind people.

According to researchers, gene therapy is helping the retina to restructure itself, regain normal light responses and, ultimately regain vision in mice. 

A paper, published in JNeurosci, outlines the findings and supports the continued development of treatments for blindness designed around saving dying cells in retinas.

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Retina plasticity

Much like with the brain, it has been found that the retinas of our eyes retain a remarkable ability to change, on a cellular level, throughout our lives.

The paper says the new findings "show that the adult mammalian neural retina exhibits a surprising degree of plasticity following rescue of rod photoreceptors."

Blindness is often caused by the death of a type of cell, called rod photoreceptors, in the retina. While treatments do exist that focus on saving dying rods, it was not previously known if the retina could regrow and rebuild cells after being treated. 

Developing Treatments for Blindness: Gene Therapy Shown to Restructure Retinas
Retinal cells with (bottom) and without gene therapy. Source: Wang et al., JNeurosci 2019

The new findings show promise in paving the way for testing treatments that could eventually allow regained vision.

Regaining light responses

Researchers, including Jeannie Chen, Alapakkam Sampath and Greg Field from various universities in the US developed a mouse model with genetically defective rods, mimicking developmental blindness disorders in humans.

Chen, Sampath, and Field's team investigated the structure of the defective retina, as well as its responses to light. As Eurekalert.org reports, they tested the same conditions with and without gene therapy.

Their observations showed that the rods that received gene therapy regained normal light responses. Not only that, they recovered normal connections to other retinal neurons.

Other promising findings

Groundbreaking research findings, funded by the National Eye Institute (NEI), were released last year, providing new hope for people suffering from congenital blindness. Scientists were able to effectively reverse congenital blindness in mice by using retinal stem cell technology.

Along with technological advances in wearables, progress in gene therapy and stem cell science is showing great potential in improving the lives of millions of people affected by sight impairment.

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