Novel approach allows researchers to define how cells in the retina respond to diabetes

Researchers will for the first time be defining how every cell type within the retina responds to diabetes, in a study announced by eye research charity Fight for Sight during National Eye Health Week 2018.

The study, which has just been funded by the charity, will be the first to simultaneously ‘dissect’ out all the cell types within the retina to discover how they are affected during the course of diabetic retinopathy.

The team, led by Dr David Simpson from Queen's University Belfast, will use a novel approach known as single cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-Seq) which enables them to simultaneously understand the genes in thousands of cells in the retinal tissue. Traditional approaches have been unsuccessful at assessing the impact of diabetes upon each of the multiple cell types in the retina.

Understanding this sight-threatening condition, which has the potential to affect 144,000 people in the UK, could provide new treatments to target specific cells and prevent or slow down the early retinal changes.

In the UK, within 20 years of diagnosis nearly all people with type 1 and almost two thirds of people with type 2 diabetes (60%) have some degree of retinopathy, which can cause eye pain, floaters and lead to sudden vision loss.

There are a number of treatments currently available but unfortunately for some patients they are not effective and they have a limited ability to restore vision that has been lost.

Suzie Bushby, from Chichester, who was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, said:

I’ve had diabetic retinopathy for four years which has really had a significant impact on mine and my family's life. This has involved seven bouts of laser treatment, a detached retina, six months off work and each and every morning I wake up and am worried that there will be blood in my eye or worse. My consultant is wonderful and reassures me and the laser does stop the vessels from growing but it's still uncomfortable and it scares me.

Research studies like this one give me hope for the future because they pave the way for understanding the disease and developing new treatments that could make a real difference."

Dr Simpson from Queen’s University Belfast said:

I am thrilled by the opportunity provided by this funding to apply the very latest technique to perform a ‘molecular dissection’ of the retina and discover how all the different cell types required for vision are affected by diabetes. This offers great potential for developing future treatments for diabetic retinopathy.”

Dr Neil Ebenezer, Director of Research, Policy and Innovation at Fight for Sight said:

Diabetic retinopathy is a severe complication of diabetes which can in some cases lead to blindness if left untreated. Fight for Sight is funding this pioneering study because it could lead to the development of new treatments to prevent sight loss from this condition and transform the lives of thousands of people.”

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