No one wants to get glaucoma. It is the leading cause of blindness worldwide, and the number of people with this disease is expected to increase as the world population ages.While there are treatments, the most they can do is preserve remaining vision—they don’t restore vision that was lost.
Researchers are seeking out ways to better understand what causes glaucoma and how to treat it. Research funded by the National Eye Institute has identified three genes that contribute to the most common type of glaucoma: primary open angle glaucoma.
Lead by primary investigator, Janey Wiggs, M.D., Ph.D., who is the associate director of the Ocular Genomics Institute at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, researchers compared the DNA of over 3000 people of European descent who have primary open angle glaucoma with the DNA of a group of over 33,000 people who don’t have glaucoma. What was found was that specific variations in the FOXC1, TXNRD2, and ATXN2 genes are associated with glaucoma. All three genes are found in the eye, and TXNRD2, and ATXN2 genes are found in the optic nerve.
In particular, this study found that an expression of the TXNRD2 gene may play a part in the development of glaucoma. This gene makes an enzyme that protects the mitochondria against oxidative stress. If the TXNRD2 gene isn’t working properly, then the mitochondria isn’t protected, and that can lead to mitochondrial damage and optic nerve death. This information can lead to more ways to detect and possibly treat glaucoma.
Other research isn’t just looking at the genetic expression of glaucoma, it is looking for ways to regenerate damaged optic nerve cells. Since the optic nerve is part of the Central Nervous System, it won’t regenerate on its own.
Strategies to regenerate the optic nerve include:
Nanotechnology—this can be done through the creation of a protein nanofiber formation whereby the axons can regenerate.
Cellular implants—cells are engineered to give physical support to neuronal fibers and provide regeneration-promoting chemicals to aid in axonal growth.
Genetic manipulations—the idea behind this is to stimulate optic nerve regeneration so that new functioning cells take the place of damaged cells.
Stem cell approaches—stem cells from bone and fat have shown promise for regeneration in models of glaucoma.
It wasn’t too long ago when it was thought that restoring vision in glaucoma patients was impossible. Scientists are now working to learn more about the genetic expression of the disease and seeking ways to restore vision through genetics or other means. In the future, there will be more tools for eye doctors to diagnose and treat this disease. Hopefully one day people with glaucoma won’t have to live in fear that they will lose functional vision.