Revolutionary Treatment Developed to Significantly Slow Down Progression of Vision-Destroying Retinal Diseases


Scientists have made a major breakthrough in the treatment of retinal diseases that can cause blindness by successfully incorporating anti-inflammatory drugs into a hydrogel. This innovative approach effectively suppresses inflammation in the retina and delivers the medication directly to the affected area.

Two incurable eye diseases, age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, gradually destroy the photoreceptor cells in the retina, which are responsible for converting light into biological signals. Age-related macular degeneration affects the central part of the retina, known as the macula, and is the leading cause of blindness among individuals aged 65 and above. On the other hand, retinitis pigmentosa is a genetic disorder characterized by the slow death of photoreceptor cells, initially causing night blindness and eventually leading to vision loss. It affects around one in 4,000 people worldwide.

Presently, there is no effective cure for either of these diseases. One treatment option involves injecting anti-inflammatory drugs directly into the eye to slow down retinal damage. However, this approach has limitations as the drug only remains effective as long as it remains in the eye, necessitating regular clinic visits every four to 12 weeks for intraocular injections.

For the first time, researchers have combined a substance that inhibits the inflammatory factor EZH2, known to contribute to retinal degeneration, with an anti-inflammatory agent. The team injected the anti-inflammatory drug into mice with retinal degeneration, effectively slowing down the progression of retinal damage. The findings of this breakthrough research have been published in the journal npj Regenerative Medicine.

The scientists have created a hydrogel that degrades gradually when it encounters the enzyme cathepsin, which is overexpressed in inflammatory environments. This unique hydrogel enables the controlled release of anti-inflammatory drugs. When injected into the eyes of mice with retinal degeneration, the inflammation-responsive hydrogel significantly reduced inflammatory factors in the retina by approximately 6.1%.

Additionally, the team discovered that the protective effect on photoreceptor cells, which are typically destroyed by retinal degeneration, was four times higher compared to the control group. This effectively delayed vision loss. Notably, the hyaluronic acid-based hydrogel, which shares mechanical and optical properties with the vitreous humor of the eye, allows for personalized degradation rates in each patient, minimizing the need for frequent injections.

This groundbreaking technology is expected to alleviate the economic burden and reduce the risk of accidents associated with regular clinic visits for patients facing mobility difficulties due to visual impairment. Furthermore, for patients in the early stages of symptoms, reducing the frequency of hospital visits will greatly improve their quality of life.

The research team, composed of Dr. Maesoon Im from the Brain Science Institute, Prof. Seung Ja Oh from Kyung Hee University, and Prof. Kangwon Lee from Seoul National University, plans to digitize the dosage of the drug and hydrogel used, as well as the treatment period, based on the progression of the disease. They also intend to assess the long-term stability of the drug delivery system.

In addition to the retinal degenerative diseases already studied, the scientists aim to investigate the levels of inflammation in other retinal diseases to determine the effectiveness of their inflammation-responsive drug delivery system. This breakthrough has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of various debilitating eye conditions, offering hope to countless individuals affected by visual impairments.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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