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Boosting key protein in eye cells could prevent age-related vision loss, finds international team

Press release issued: 5 June 2024

Increasing the levels of a key protein in the cells at the back of the eye could help protect against the leading cause of vision loss among older adults, finds a new discovery made by researchers from the UK, US, Germany and Australia. The University of Bristol-led findings are published today [5 June] in Science Translational Medicine and featured on the front cover.

Progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) — a common condition impacting central vision, for which there are currently no effective treatments, affects around 200-million people worldwide. This number is expected to rise to 288-million by 2040 as the population ages.  This new breakthrough could lead to new and more effective AMD treatments.

AMD can severely impact a person’s vision. Patients suffering from AMD often start with blurred vision or seeing a black dot in their central vision, which can ultimately expand to the point where there is no useful central vision. The exact cause of AMD is complex and thought to involve a combination of aging, genetics, environment and lifestyle factors. Primarily affecting people over the age of 50, the risk of developing AMD significantly increases with age​ and makes tasks like reading and driving​ difficult.

Scientists believe that chronic inflammation, which is typical with aging, is associated with the reduction of a key immune regulatory protein called IRAK-M. This protein is crucial for protecting the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), a layer of cells essential for maintaining a healthy retina. When RPE cells are damaged, it can result in serious eye conditions and vision loss.

In this study, researchers investigated the role of IRAK-M in AMD by examining genetic variations and their link to AMD risk. By studying IRAK-M levels in patient samples and mouse models of retinal degeneration, the team observed changes in retinal function in mice lacking the IRAK3 gene, which expresses the IRAK-M protein. They found that IRAK-M decreases with age, especially in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), and this decline is more pronounced in those with age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Read the full University of Bristol news item

Paper: ‘Replenishing IRAK-M expression in retinal pigment epithelium attenuates outer retinal degeneration’ by Jian Liu et al. in Science Translational Medicine

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