Blood vessel research offers insights into new treatments for eye diseases

28 May 2014

Leukaemia drugs could help to improve treatments for blindness caused by abnormal blood vessel growth in the eye, finds new UCL research. The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, raises the possibility that medication prescribed for leukaemia could also be used to improve vision in patients with age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and other diseases caused by abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye.

Blood vessels normally form in developing foetuses to deliver oxygen to growing organs, or in adults when organs are deprived of oxygen due to conditions such as diabetes, stroke or heart attack,” explains Professor Christiana Ruhrberg of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, who led the study. “Even though the growth of new blood vessels aims to restore organ health, blood vessels often grow abnormally in adults. For example, in diseases such as age-related-macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, abnormal eye vessels leak blood and fluids, causing vision loss.

Because the formation of new blood vessels depends on the molecular signal vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), patients with age-related macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy are treated with drugs that block VEGF. This treatment involves an injection into the eye to deliver the drug and works very well for most patients, but some patients have side effects due to the injection and others stop responding to the treatment after initial success and their vision deteriorates again.

We discovered an alternative mechanism that regulates blood vessel growth and does not depend on VEGF,” says Professor Ruhrberg. “It involves the activation of a molecule called neuropilin 1 (NRP1) by connective tissue components in the eye. The NRP1 pathway then coveys signals inside the blood vessel cells via another molecule termed ABL1, and this process stimulates blood vessel growth.

The researchers discovered that a medicine, which safely treats some forms of leukaemia, also blocks the NRP1/ABL1 pathway in blood vessels and can therefore be used to curb their abnormal growth in the mouse eye. In cancer patients, this medicine is delivered in tablet form rather than through n injection, raising the possibility that this drug could be taken safely at home to treat blood vessel disease in the eye.

UCL Business PLC, the technology transfer office for UCL, has patented this technology and is seeking partners. Please contact Dr Rachel Hemsley for further information, r.hemsley@uclb.com

Research paper in Journal of Experimental Medicine

About UCL Institute of Ophthalmology
UCL Institute of Ophthalmology is one of the foremost eye and vision research institutes in the world. It operates at the cutting-edge of translational research, delivering new therapies, diagnostic tools and preventive measures to patients suffering from visual impairment or blinding conditions. The combination of the Institute’s research resource with MoorfieldsEyeHospital, which has the largest ophthalmic patient population in the Western World, opens the way for further advances in vision research. The Institute is a recipient of a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education, in recognition of outstanding research excellence.

For further information, please visit: www.ucl.ac.uk/ioo

About UCL Business PLC
UCL Business PLC (UCLB) is a leading technology transfer company that supports and commercialises research and innovations arising from UCL, one of the UK’s top research-led universities. UCLB has a successful track record and a strong reputation for identifying and protecting promising new technologies and innovations from UCL academics. UCLB has a strong track record in commercialising medical technologies and provides technology transfer services to UCL’s associated hospitals; University College London Hospitals, Moorfields Eye Hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and the Royal Free London Hospital. It invests directly in development projects to maximise the potential of the research and manages the commercialisation process of technologies from laboratory to market.

For further information, please visit www.uclb.com