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Averting blindness with a natural protein
October 8, 2017, 5:12 pm

The discovery of a naturally occurring protein that protects the eye from glaucoma — one of the leading causes of blindness — has led scientists to believe they may be on the threshold of a new strategy to prevent blindness.

Glaucoma is an overarching term used for a number of eye diseases that generally result from a buildup of eye pressure, which damages the optic nerve linking the eye to the brain. The disruption of eye signals to the brain can result in a loss of vision.

Precise mechanisms by which glaucoma damages the optic nerve damage were previously unclear. Now, researchers at the Macquarie University in Australia say they may have found the damage causing link.

The research team found that a protein called neuroserpin, which plays a key role in eye health, is inactivated in glaucoma patients. Their analysis revealed that neuroserpin is deactivated in response to oxidative stress caused by environmental factors. Oxidative stress creates an imbalance between the production of molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS) that damages cell structures, and the body’s ability to cope with the harmful effects of ROS.

Neuroserpin has already been known to block the activity of an enzyme called plasmin that induces damage in nerve cells. Over a period of time, the inactivity of neuroserpin in glaucoma patients leads to an increase in activity of plasmin that gradually digests and destroys the eye tissue, leading to the adverse effects associated with glaucoma.

There is currently no cure for glaucoma, but there are treatments that can help to slow progression of the disease if it is detected early enough. The researchers hope that their findings will open the door to new strategies designed to prevent or treat glaucoma. In future studies, the team plans to investigate whether or not antioxidants — molecules that help to prevent cell damage caused by ROS — could be an effective treatment for glaucoma.

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