Current treatments for retinal degeneration only slow progression of sight loss rather than restore vision. More research is urgently needed to develop new treatments. We’re funding research exploring the ability of a particular group of cells in the retina to regenerate photoreceptors.

The challenge

The retina is part of the central nervous system, and contains nerve cells that function to process light. These include photoreceptors - cells that are sensitive to light and work to convert this energy to electrical signals so they can be sent to the brain. Through different mechanisms, these photoreceptor cells get damaged and no longer function in conditions such as age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, leading to sight loss. There is currently no treatment which allows the cells to be repaired to restore vision. 

12.8%

Percentage of people over 80 years old who have age-related macular degeneration

£1.2billion

The cost per year of treating patients with age-related macular degeneration in the UK

Müller glia are specific cells in the retina that perform tasks to support the structure and function of all cells in the retina, such as storing energy and regulating levels of chemicals. Previous research in a zebrafish model has shown that after retinal injury the Müller glial cells increase in number and become photoreceptors, replacing damaged cells. The human retina also contains Müller glia cells but currently there is limited evidence to demonstrate that they have similar regenerative properties. 

Finding a solution

Dr Karen Eastlake and her research team will study Müller glial cells in a retinal cell model. Using stem cells, they will grow retinal tissue in a dish using a process that mimics retinal development. Once the Müller glia cells and retinal tissue have developed, they will treat this tissue structure with chemicals to damage photoreceptors throughout various stages of development in the laboratory. In turn, different proteins called growth or differentiation factors, will be applied to see if they can rescue the retinal tissue. 

The potential

The research aims to provide a better understanding of the ability of human Müller glia cells to regenerate nerve cells inside the retina. This could lead to further research to explore if these cells could be encouraged to regenerate in situ in the retina and whether this could be used as a therapy to treat retinal diseases. 

We are very grateful to Moorfields Eye Charity for supporting our project. This funding has enabled us to conduct cutting-edge investigations to identify mechanisms of retinal self-repair that will hopefully lead to further research to explore its potential as a therapy to treat retinal disease.

Dr Karen Eastlake

Project Details

Funding scheme

Springboard Award

Grant holder

Dr Karen Eastlake

Area(s) of work

Diabetic retinopathy, Retinal/vitreo-retinal, Age related macular degeneration

Award level

£62,722

Start date

September 2020

Grant reference

GR001204