Thanks to a new protein made by scientists, blood vessel growth that can lead to blindness may be reduced by a whopping 50%. A result of injury or surgery, the natural process that should help heal the problem is actually potentially blinding — it can lead to both age-related macular degeneration and cancer if it gets out of hand.
Â Before we get to what the researchers set out to accomplish, let’s look at the natural process that occurs in your eyes when they sustain an injury or go through surgery. Essentially, what happens when you experience damage to your eye, such as from a corneal transplant, a severe scratch from a contact lens, or damage due to a tumor, is that your body starts to produce new blood vessels at the site to promote healing immediately after the trauma has occurred.
Â This process is called “angiogenesis” and it’s completely natural, but unfortunately it can become problematic when the new growth starts to obstruct vision or when a tumor takes over the new cells in an attempt to grow and survive. Technically, this process is known as “vascular endothelial growth factor” or VEGF for short.
Â The animal study involving mice and published in the journal Nature, which builds on previous work done by the same researchers and published in Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, looked at how the new protein could reverse this potentially obstructive growth in the eyes. What they discovered is that the protein could hold off the new cell growth for as long as one month after surgery or injury. This is actually a very long time in the lifespan of a mouse, which has promise, as even older cells responded to the therapy.
Â According to Dr. Balamurali K. Ambati, corresponding author of the study, “We believe eventually we’ll be able to use this protein to help patients in many situations where blood vessel formation is detrimental, including cancer, diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration.”
Â The protein, which helps trap VEGF, works as an interceptor that works inside of a cell, where protein is created. When it blocks VEGF, the protein helps target the problem at the source, allowing the troublemaking blood vessels to die off. The research is still being done in the laboratory on animals, but it does offer a lot of potential for possible future human studies.
Â According to Dr. Ambati “The biology of all this is showing this molecule interrupts the proper folding of proteins involved in existing blood vessels, which makes them die. It’s a nice result.”
Â “It is important to bind it within cells because certain cells, such as cancer and blood vessel cells, have the capability to produce their own VEGF and their own receptors,” explained Dr. Ambati. “Imagine trying to block from the outside a factory that has everything it needs inside. You have to throw a monkey wrench inside the factory and that is what we managed to do.”
Â By injecting the test subjects’ corneas with the new protein, the researchers have managed to do just that — stop the progress of VEGF right at the core of the problem, in the corneal blood vessel cells. The researchers hope to see how this interceptor protein can play a role in killing off blood vessels that contribute to certain cancers. We’ll keep you posted on any new developments in this exciting field of research.