Keeping the cornea healthy after eye injuries

Corneal cortical nerves, appearing as branched trees, highlighted in green on a black background.

New research published by researchers at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology might unlock a new avenue of treatment for people with eye injuries.

The cornea is the transparent window of the eye that doubles as a protective covering. Damage or injury to the cornea can be very painful, as the cornea contains a large number of nerves, and can lead to sight loss.

A protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is naturally produced after an eye injury, and it helps the cornea recover. Now, clinical fellow Franziska Bucher and her team at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology - supported by a Moorfields Eye Charity Springboard Award - have found that some forms of this protein VEGF could be a potential future treatment to accelerate healing in the cornea following an eye injury.

Helping the eye to heal

There are three forms of VEGF naturally produced in the eye. Franziska's research discovered that just one of these forms (VEGF188) is responsible for supporting the healthy regrowth of nerves in the cornea following an injury. Her team then explored whether giving eye drops containing only this particular form of VEGF could help promote healthy healing of the cornea. 

They found that the application of eye drops containing only VEGF188 could improve the rate of nerve regeneration in the cornea following eye injury. Remarkably, giving only this one specific form of VEGF also prevented any damaging over-growth of blood vessels in the eye - a common effect of high levels of VEGF. Franziska explained:

We found that VEGF188 is both necessary and sufficient for the nerve regeneration in the cornea following injury to the eye surface. This finding opens the door to developing a new treatment for patients with serious corneal wounds, because healing corneal nerves is a key step to healing the entire cornea.

A wider impact

Their research also has implications for the treatment of other eye conditions, in particular wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Currently anti-VEGF injections (which block the effect of all forms of VEGF) are used in patients with wet (AMD) to block the abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye that lead to progression of the disease, but some patients experience adverse side-effects from this treatment. This new research suggests that the some of those side effects might result from accidental inhibition of VEGF188’s positive role in healing in the cornea.

Ailish Murray, Director of Grants and Research a Moorfields Eye Charity, said:

It’s fantastic to see this paper drive forwards our understanding of healing in the eye, with the potential to open up a new avenue of treatment for those with eye injuries. Supporting research like this is what Moorfields Eye Charity’s Springboard Awards are all about.

This research was supported by Moorfields Eye Charity, who funded Franziska Bucher through a Springboard Award.