It is now possible to regenerate damaged nerve fibres in the eye using gene therapy. While the discovery is quite phenomenal, it may lead to even greater medical developments like novel treatments for glaucoma. The disease is one of the biggest causes of blindness globally.
The nerve fibres, known as Axons, in the central nervous system (CNS) of an adult don’t regenerate after disease or injury. This is why most back, brain (areas of higher nerve population) often never recover from injury and damage caused to nerves are considered as irreversible.
However, in the past couple of decades, research related to CNS has made huge strides. Many are working on treating damaged nerves and nervous systems. The latest has even managed to reconstruct damaged Axons. The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.
The basic question of the study was to find if the gene that produces proteins, known as Protrudin, could manage to stimulate the regeneration of the nerve cell as well as protect them from cell death, in case of an injury.
The team used cell culture to grow brain cells in a petri dish. They went on to injure the axons with help of a laser and then analysed how they responded to this injury by using live-cell microscopy. It was discovered if they increased the amount of Protrudin, then the nerve cells’ ability to regenerate also increased.
Now in the retina, the nerve cells are known as retinal ganglion cells. Their axons extend from retina to the brain via the opting nerve and relay visual information to the brain. The team used the same process, increasing the activity of Protrudin, but with retinal cells.
When they measured regeneration a few weeks post crush injury to the optic nerve, they discovered axons were able to regenerate over large distances, thanks to Protrudin. In the study, the researchers had removed a mouse retina and placed it in a dish. They found that the retina, which usually dies within three days of removal, could survive and regenerate with the help of Protrudin increment.
In case of Glaucoma, the optic nerve gets progressively damaged. It often happens due to elevated pressure inside the eye. Late detection can lead to permanent loss of vision. However, the team believes the above technique can be used to save glaucoma patients from a life of blindness.
It should be noted that glaucoma as a disease is not yet fully understood and can have multiple factors inducing it, but the team remains confident this is a helpful step forward.